The History Behind the Graphene Hype
Graphene and hype have gone hand in hand ever since its discovery back in 2004. The hype peaked around 2010 when Dr. Geim and Dr. Novoselov, the scientists who characterized it successfully, won a Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.
Labeled as the world’s most conductive material and touted to have strength that exceeded more than 200 times that of steel while being only a single atom thick, it is easy to understand why the hype around graphene skyrocketed. Gartner’s hype cycle is a well-known concept that provides some context into how emerging technologies like graphene evolve and progress over time. Emerging technologies often face a long road and unique challenges before they go from a discovery to a product that is used widely in the real world.
At the nanoscale, the fundamental laws governing how atoms interact with one another change drastically, thereby giving nanomaterials unique and unprecedented properties at the nanoscale. These properties – while remarkable – do not scale the same way to human sizes.
The majority of industries across the world have never worked with nanomaterials and nanotechnology before. Many still see it as “science fiction” that is a work in progress and will take several decades to become a reality. The early adopters of graphene also did not see much success as most underestimated how difficult it would be to make graphene at an industrial scale, at a consistent and reproducible quality, and at prices where it could be a meaningful alternative to the materials of today. Massive Fortune 500 companies like Samsung and Intel spent millions of dollars trying to develop graphene technology during the previous decade without much to show for it. The challenge of making graphene at an industrial scale has readily prompted companies to take a “wait and see” approach – no one wants to solve the mass production problem due to the sheer difficulty that has been associated historically with commercialization and manufacturing.
Graphene’s Developmental Journey as an Emerging Technology
To underscore graphene’s developmental journey, let’s look at a few examples of emerging technologies that went through a research period before making their way out into the real world.
- MRI machines took almost 30 years to be adopted into commercial use after their underlying mechanism was conceptualized.
- The semiconductor industry came into existence over a century after silicon was first purified.
- Aluminum was discovered in the 1820s but only found its true killer application in airplanes in the 1900s after the First World War.
Each of these technologies faced some, if not all, of the following challenges in their path toward commercialization:
- New technologies need to be significantly better and/or cheaper than existing alternatives.
- The potential for production at a commercial scale must exist, with scalable and cost-effective manufacturing processes being a crucial requirement.
- Technologies that are theoretically widespread across different application fields are often misunderstood due to application potential being limited largely to people’s imagination.
Graphene: From Hype to a Plateau of Productivity
Graphene application literature has ranged from things like biosensors and heating films for CVD graphene films. Graphene particulate (GO/rGO/GNPs) has witnessed some growth in additive manufacturing applications such as graphene-enhanced concrete and asphalt. Overall, graphene has found itself in a “plateau of productivity” with these applications. Still, there isn’t much public confidence to term any graphene application discovered so far as the definitive killer application.
The story with graphene in the previous decade was largely centered on applications such as bulletproof armor and space elevators with hype-oriented messaging. Are graphene bulletproof vests and space elevators the same killer application as airplanes were for aluminum?
Only time will truly tell, but both these applications require truly perfect graphene right down to the atomic scale or require nanoscale physics to translate readily to human sizes – both of which have proven to be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with current technology. While we are not saying that these graphene applications are impossible to realize, they are nowhere close to being realized in the near term.
The Future of Real-World Graphene Applications
Like aluminum, graphene’s killer application may be far from mature or may not even exist today. But it is important to focus on what it can do today rather than waiting for a killer application, as graphene is a one-of-a-kind material capable of many great things and has the required versatility to be applied across different industries.
If we keep our expectations grounded, rather than focus on hype-oriented messaging and applications that are far away from real-world use, industries across the world will be able to appreciate and harness graphene’s unique properties. And, the world’s first-ever nanomaterial will finally make its way out of the lab and into the real world. So now more so than ever before, it is important to look beyond the hype of graphene and to better understand where its true real-world impact lies and what it can be used for today.