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Back in the 1990s, as a young journalist working for a chemical engineering magazine, I recall writing an article on Buckminsterfullerene (C60), otherwise known as Buckyballs. It was going to be the next biggest thing in materials according to many observers, finding applications in lubricants, high-temperature superconductors, reaction catalysts, and "disintegrating polymers" as I put it at the time.

July 31, 2015

2 Min Read
Graphene: A wonder material struggles to find commercial applications

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Graphene nanoplatelets sell for $450/kg (industrial grade) and are hard to disperse throughout polymer matrices. Their potential would appear to be limited. Photo: Cheap Tubes Inc.

Well guess what? 23 years on from that "groundbreaking article," Buckminsterfullerene still remains pretty much a laboratory curiosity, with no apparent commercial applications. Could the latest wonder material, graphene, specifically the graphene nanoplatelet (GNP) genre, be heading down that same road?

One consultant seems to think so. You can read more on the rationale behind Lux Research's pessimistic outlook for GNP here. To boot, the analyst is also doubtful about the potential of multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWNTs).

Lux says that despite billions of dollars being poured into GNP R&D and production plants by the private and public sectors, most developers of graphene applications are long shots with unproven technical value and business execution. The key hurdle, as is the case with  MWNTs and other nanomaterials, is to maintain the performance of GNP when the material is dispersed in a matrix. What's more, says Lux, agglomeration and viscosity issues limit the practical loading of GNP as a primary reinforcement or additive in many applications. As a consequence, companies are finding it difficult to exploit the inherent characteristics of GNP in the final product, be it a composite part, battery, supercapacitor, or transparent conductive film.

And lest one forgets, as any new market entry, not only do GNP-based products have to prove themselves on performance, but they need be compelling enough to justify their higher upfront price tags.

But it's not all bad news. "While GNP developers indeed appear poised to repeat the trajectory of their older MWNT cousins, it would be a disservice to graphene film developers to entirely lump them in with their GNP peers," notes Lux. There may be opportunities for this material in the sensor field and as heat sinks in electronic devices, for example. Nevertheless, the initial hype surrounding GNP-based products such as composites and conductive compounds does appear to be receding rapidly.

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