The Carbon Age: What can graphene learn from the commercialisation pathways of previous ‘wonder materials’?

Nobel Laureate Konstantin Novoselov and colleagues have written a critical, yet optimistic, assessment of the state of graphene research and production [1].

In their writing they have posed a big question that they believe must be answered before widespread adoption of graphene technology is possible: “are graphene’s advantages sufficient to use it in place of the materials we use in existing devices?” While scientists and engineers race to answer this question across the globe, both the authors and I agree that, to some extent, that’s the wrong question. Graphene’s greatest potential lies in novel applications, designed specifically for the advantages that graphene offers.

Robert Friedel, a historian of technology at the University of Maryland, offered a broad axiom: “The more innovative—the more breaking-the-mold—the innovation is, the less likely we are to figure out what it is really going to be used for” [2]. To date, as an industry we have only figured out how to commercially exploit graphene in a few niche areas. It seems that while it is fast, strong and relatively cheap, it is also nearly impossible to use.

The discovery of materials before their time is not a new phenomenon. In the 1820’s, Aluminium was purified in small quantities and instantly hailed as a wonder material. It was light, corrosion resistant, highly conductive and shiny, the combination of which had never been seen before. It was initially purified from clay and tagged “silver from clay” and “modern day alchemy”! 30 years on, production rates were up to the gram scale and it became a popular metal in jewellery. Another 30 years passed before an electrical process was developed to allow industrial scale production to take off and the price plummeted.

“People said, ‘Wow! We’ve got this silver from clay, and now it’s really cheap and we can use it for anything,’ ”, Friedel pointed out in his vivid reminiscence of that time. But the enthusiasm was short lived: “They couldn’t figure out what to use it for.” Aluminium’s time did not arrive until after WW1 when the development of aeroplanes came of age.

Similar stories can be told about other so called ‘wonder materials’: Silicon, Carbon fibre, Carbon nanotubes, the commercialisation pathways of which clearly showing that the problems do not end at the discovery of a new material.

Subsequent novel devices are often a solution looking for a problem. When Theodore Maiman fired the first laser pulse in 1960, some described the new technology as a solution in need of a problem. But scientists quickly discovered that lasers were not novelties and began developing practical applications for them. In 2014 it was estimated that over $9 billion of lasers were sold into applications ranging from bar-code scanners, blue-ray players, tattoo removal, spectroscopy, manufacturing, cutting and even nuclear fusion. The LASER has led to arguably more novel applications than any other breakthrough device, yet was considered a laboratory curiosity when first created.

Knowing that graphene exists and that it offers the characteristics that it does, will stimulate and evolve applications that simply aren’t immediately visible. While some of the current list of applications will surely be optimised and productionised driving the growth of the graphene industry, the carbon age will most likely not be ushered in until a new previously unheard of technology, that could not have been imagined before the current breed of metamaterials and 2D structures existed. This light bending, electrically conducting, exotic tunnelling, stretchy carbon will have its day yet, just as soon as we find the right question to ask it.

[1] K.S.Novoselov, V.I.Fal’ko, L.Colombo, P.R.Gellert, M.G.Schwab, K.Kim; 2012, Nature, Vol 490, 192-200
[2] John Colapinto; The New Yorker “Graphene may be the most remarkable substance ever discovered. But what’s it for?”

Sep, 03, 2015