Graphene: The wonder material with much promise but little traction

  • Market now entering growth phase, according to a new report
  • Graphene is stronger, lighter, more adaptable and more durable than silicon
  • The technology is perfect for 5G, IoT and ultra-fast datacomms solutions
  • However, lack of uptake is causing “some disillusionment” among manufacturers

Graphene is a remarkable substance, well known for its potential to advance integrated circuit technology to new levels and enable energy efficient, ultra-fast data communications capable of enabling 5G, 6G and bandwidth-hungry internet of things (IoT) connectivity, all while consuming remarkably little power. However, getting graphene-based components out of the research labs, into viable products and onto the market has been such a slow process that some industry analysts (and companies) are now beginning to speculate if graphene may be a technological cul-de-sac as far as the communications networking industry is concerned. And they back up their arguments by pointing out that graphene-based solutions to communications technology problems seem no closer in practical reality now than they were a decade ago.

That’s why it is interesting and instructive to read the report Graphene Market & 2D Materials Assessment 2023-2033 published by research house IDTechEx, the Cambridge, UK-headquartered independent specialist business intelligence and emerging technology organisation. Subtitled “The graphene market enters the growth phase”, the report provides detailed analysis of both the technological and commercial progress of graphene (and other 2D materials) and forecasts that the sector will grow in value from US$100m it was worth in 2020 to more than $1bn by 2032.

But, first things first… Graphene is a 2-dimensional crystalline allotrope of carbon, an element that exists in more than one crystalline form, or 'allotrope’. The most common and best known allotropes of carbon are graphite and diamond, but there are others, including graphene and the splendidly named Buckminsterfullerene. Graphene is a stronger, lighter, more adaptable and more durable alternative to the silicon wafers and components that are at the heart of current computing and communications systems everywhere.

Graphene exists as a single layer of carbon atoms that are arranged in an hexagonal pattern and it is simultaneously a 3D material of minute thickness and the first and simplest example of a 2D crystal with physical and chemical properties, including high electrical conductivity, great mechanical strength, and high thermal conductivity. In fact, graphene is 100 times more effective at conducting electricity than copper, and passes electrons at up to 140 times faster than silicon. It is easy to work with, more than 100 times stronger than the toughest steel, and is very flexible. It is also lightweight and comparatively inexpensive to fabricate. 

So what’s not to like? Well, nothing really, but it is proving very difficult to upscale the tiny quantities of graphene that have been used in laboratory research into large enough amounts for commercial application. Samsung of South Korea holds the most patents on graphene technology and has spent a lot of R&D money testing its use in telecom networks and devices. The company has found that when comparatively large sheets of graphene are synthesised, they exhibit particularly marked deterioration of the material’s electric and mechanical properties compared to that seen in tiny amounts of the substance. Research continues at Samsung, and in many other companies and organisations, to solve the problem, mainly driven by the fact that graphene is ideal for use in scalable, high-speed, long-distance, opto-electronic data transmission as it has many advantages over traditional silicon-based solutions. And there’ll be a lot of money in that.

Graphene is progressing through its own hype curve

The IDTechEX report, authored by Dr Richard Collins and Dr Conor O'Brien, notes that “Graphene-related materials are [now] progressing through their own hype curve”, and adds that with steady progress being made towards its commercialisation, the market will “significantly grow over the next decade.” The paper points out that “graphene-related materials take a wide range of types, grades and forms, each with their own commercial outlook” and adds the caveat that whilst “there is some progression towards standardisation and safety legislation/qualification… this challenge still prevails.”

The graphene variants that have been developed and are regarded as being the closest to commercial deployment are graphene nanoplatelets (GNP), graphene oxide (GO), and reduced graphene oxide (rGO). And the report points out that “there are increasing signs that we are now in the rapid growth phase, with significant applications observed for polymer composites for automotive, heatspreaders for smartphones, industrial elastomers, anti-corrosion coatings and many more.”

Incidentally, there is no such thing as a best sort of graphene, because with each application “having different multifunctional requirements, the end users now accept that the winning materials cannot be determined a priori as final application-level results are influenced by many parameters such as graphene morphology and purity. Players understand there is key know-how in both dispersing graphene and introducing valuable functionality, companies are competing to fill that crucial stage of the value chain (externally and in-house) to provide a range of intermediate products.” So there.

Where the global telecoms industry is concerned, research undertaken by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US and published in ACS Photonics, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, describes a breakthrough that could have profound implications. The scientists were able to manufacture graphene as microscopic ribbons, just 12 nano-metres (nm) wide, that can easily be scaled-up to form wafers as large as six inches across for use in major industrial applications and processes. (To give some idea of how very small the individual graphene ribbons are, the Covid-19 virus has a diameter in the range of 50 nm to 140 nm.)

It was found that when graphene is sliced into nanometre ribbons they act as miniscule antennas that interface with light and (this is the really important point) the more microscopic the antennas are, the higher the wavelengths of light they can interact with, potentially permitting the very close to light-speed modulation of telecom traffic. What's more, via the application of an electric field, the performance can be fine-tuned to work with multiple wavelengths because graphene can absorb light from the ultraviolent to the far-infrared.

Meanwhile, and elsewhere, researchers from the Barcelona-headquartered Institute of Photonic Sciences, Ghent University in Belgium and the Universita di Pisa in Italy have demonstrated a prototype of a graphene-based semiconductor electro-absorption modulator (EAM) capable of tripling the efficiency of both the static and dynamic modulation of existing modulators while maintaining very high speeds. Because the EAM is compatible with existing silicon and microelectronic technologies, it could have immense potential in high-speed, low-latency optical networks in telecoms, telemedicine and remote surgery, IoT, autonomous vehicles and many other sectors.

As to the future, the IDTechEx report makes clear that it’s the gold rush days for graphene manufacturers, be they publicly or privately funded. As with the 49ers of old, there are many of them, but few will strike a mother lode. Consolidation is as inevitable as it is necessary for the sector to mature and settle down. At the moment, supply greatly exceeds demand and, as commercial graphene applications are as rare as hen’s teeth, many companies in the sector are loss-making. This, according to IDTechEx, is leading to “some disillusionment” among players. 

That may well be true in the west but as the report shows, China is deeply involved in both scientific research into graphene and ramping up production capacity as it seeks to free itself of reliance on the western technologies to which it has lost access to under various sanction regimes.

- Martyn Warwick, Editor in Chief, TelecomTV

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