- BY LEE BRUNO
Dr. Rahul R. Nair from the University of Manchester shows a 1-micron-thick graphene oxide film. Photo: University of Manchester
It was a Friday evening at the University of Manchester and scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov were conducting the sort of playful experiment for which they’ve earned a reputation. In the past Geim had levitated a frog with a magnetic field and won an IgNoble Award. On this Friday in 2004, the two professors were toying around with a strip of Sellotape. They stuck it to a piece of ordinary graphite, and then carefully peeled up a one-atom-thin flake of the element.
Simple sounding, but the two Russian-born physicists had just done something that many had tried — and failed — to do in the past and which could very well alter the future.
The single-atom-thin flake of graphite, once isolated, was found to possess a revolutionary array of properties: electrical conductivity 100 times faster than silicon; strength 200 times greater than steel; astounding optical and thermal characteristics. When the scientific world at large came to fully appreciate what Geim and Novoselov had done, it awarded them the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010. Investors and companies alike – from Samsung to IBM and Intel – began to imagine all of graphene’s very lucrative applications.
Kostya Novoselov, one half of the Nobel Prize-winning team team that isolated a one-atom-thick flake of graphene. Photo: University of Manchester
Of course, such technology breakthroughs have come before – and gone, never to break out of the lab and live up to their product potential. In the 1990s carbon nanotubes were all the rage, only to fall off the radar of many scientists and venture capitalists alike. So the question becomes, is graphene the next great leap in material science as some believe, or a science project that, like carbon nanotubes, stubbornly falls short of fulfilling its commercial promise?
Andre Geim, the other half of the Nobel Prize-winning physics team that brought the properties of graphene to the attention of the world. Photo: University of Manchester
“As we’ve seen with other nanomaterials, like carbon nanotubes, great performance doesn’t always translate into great markets and returns on investment,” says Ross Kozarsky, Lux Research senior analyst and lead author of a report titled “Is Graphene the Next Silicon…Or Just the Next Carbon Nanotube?” “The lesson of carbon nanotubes is there was a lot of hype and investment by large corporations and small startups but they didn’t pan out.”
Since 2010, graphene has been on the fast track. It is being groomed for a role in materials that typically take years and sometimes decades before they develop into products that transform the way people do things in everyday life. On a recent visit to the University of Manchester, which remains the center of the graphene “revolution,” physicists and engineers are trying hard to move their home-developed technology off the lab bench and into commercial products. To do it, they’ll have to develop a graphene “killer app” that possesses distinct advantages over existing technologies — and doesn’t cost too much to manufacture.
In a recent scientific paper in Nature coauthored by Novoselov, researchers laid out the roadmap for graphene and the horizon for innovations it could enable over the next 20 years. Flexible screens for consumer devices will appear in three years, they said. The really big applications in electronics, like ultrafast low-power processors and memory chips, will come to commercial fruition in a decade. In the area of touchscreen devices, which now use indium tin oxide, researchers believe that graphene’s mechanical flexibility and chemical durability are far superior.
Graphene’s arrival in the high-tech electronics world comes at a crucial time. Scientists have been running out of tricks to keep up with Moore’s Law. The smaller they make silicon circuits, the more chaos reigns at the nano-level, as electrons get unstable and start to behave like water droplets on a hot skillet. Scientists think graphene’s quantum mechanical properties offer a way out of this disorder toward an unimagined variety of super-small, high-speed, ultra-low-power digital electronics. All of which makes possible a convergence of these features to build salt grain-sized medical sensors that could roam your bloodstream to detect precancerous cells.
Manchester is not the only place where researchers are busy with graphene, as indicated by the high volume of graphene patents being issued to companies around the world. Samsung leads the pack with 407 graphene patents and applications, according to CambridgeIP. IBM has 134.
Samsung, along with Sony, is investing heavily in research on flexible touchscreen displays using graphene. Samsung released a promotional video of its graphene-based flexible display, but hasn’t yet shown a product. Sony hasn’t even bothered to make a video. On the chip front, Intel says it views graphene as a material that shows promise but requires further research, which it is currently conducting in university collaborations. Intel doesn’t see practical applications for graphene for at least five-plus years.
A group of graphene startups with bold claims about cheaper and better graphene have started hitting the market, such as Graphene Technologies, Grafoid, National Nanomaterials, Xolve, and Haydale. But Kozarsky says it’s too early to tell how they will do. Lux Research pegged the market for graphene last year at a meager $9 million and at $126 million in 2020. That’s mostly cranking out graphene for more graphene research. And at the moment, it’s in research where the market lies, with companies and academic centers spending an estimated $1 billion on global research in 2012, according to University of Manchester estimates.
“The key part we’re missing in graphene technology is what is the fabrication approach?” says Phaedon Avouris, IBM fellow and manager of nanoscale science at IBM Research. “At this point it’s not clear how one would go about it for large-scale industrial application and use.”
Scanning electron micrograph of a fallen mesa of graphite. This is the way graphene molecules are extracted from bulk graphite. Photo: University of Manchester
That doesn’t mean it is impossible, other researchers argue. One advantage graphene has when it comes to building devices is that it is a planar sheet and doesn’t roll up onto itself the way carbon nanotubes do. It’s not going to be easy to crank the stuff out any time soon, but at least there is reason to believe lack of graphene production may not be what holds the material back as it has with nanotubes.
“There is still a lot of work to do with regard to scaling the production of graphene sheets,” says Ivan Buckley, project manager at the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester. “But the biggest challenge of graphene is … how do you harness its all-in-one amazing properties of conductivity, strength and photonics to do something novel?”
The novel application he’s alluding to may come over the next decade, as scientists learn to harness the world-beating properties of graphene in products. Among its other talents, graphene can carry electrical current via charged particles called Dirac fermions. They have zero mass and never slow down. In the physics world that’s a very big deal.
“In many ways graphene is the ideal electromaterial – it’s highly conductive and very light in weight,” says Rob Dryfe, professor and researcher in chemistry at the University of Manchester. “It’s all about how much energy you can pack into a small piece of material and graphene gets over some of those barriers.”
IBM’s Avouris thinks the terahertz capabilities of graphene promise great things in the areas of sensing, medical imaging and short-distance communication. IBM has been working on high-frequency graphene transistors and terahertz devices. The terahertz region has high potential for imaging and sensing applications because the electromagnetic spectrum lingers between infrared and microwave frequencies. “RF is clearly one of the applications where graphene can play a role,” Avouris says.
In Congressional testimony a few years ago, Darpa told policymakers that graphene is a top priority due to its potential to revolutionize military applications. Among the most disruptive is high-frequency radar 10 to 15 times more powerful than today’s, which could probe enemy assets and provide countermeasure defenses. The agency is also keenly interested in graphene’s potential for long-lasting lightweight batteries for soldiers in the field.
That all sounds spectacular, but with so many options, which market do you go after first?
For guidance, the history of materials like nylon may offer help. Nylon took just a few years from development to mass market because there was an immediately clear market: women’s hosiery. “The material with one application is the one that’s most likely to succeed quickest and cheapest,” says Sanford Moskowitz, associate professor at St. John’s University and College and author of Advanced Materials Revolution: Technology and Economic Growth in the Age of Globalization. In contrast, Orlon and Dacron were both developed in the 1950s but it took years for industry to adopt them because they have so many varied applications, Moskowitz says.
The market waiting most immediately for graphene is in flexible displays, according to Novoselov’s roadmap, and you can imagine a touchscreen-filled world latching onto the next big improvement in displays in a hurry. Yes, production of the material at scale will take time, but that at least seems less of a hurdle than it’s been for the carbon nanotube crowd. Commercialization will come, and in places like the University of Manchester there is a growing sense that graphene will be the means to help mankind and markets — and boost Britain into a technology leader of the 21st century.
Manchester’s graphene boosters are fond of repeating a quote from the Nobel Prize committee in 2010 around this centuries-old manufacturing hub: “Carbon, the basis of all known life on Earth, has surprised us once again.”