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Graphene gets real: Meet the entrepreneurs bringing the wonder substance to market

December 13, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

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Take a piece of adhesive tape and apply it to the “lead” of a pencil. Pull the tape away, and it may still have some thin flakes of graphite attached. Fold the tape in half and unfold it, to split the flakes. Do this 10 or 20 times and, if your technique is good, then congratulations—you’ve just made the thinnest known material, and almost the strongest.

The tape trick is literally how Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov managed to first isolate graphene—an atom-thick and therefore two-dimensional layer of carbon—at the U.K.’s University of Manchester in 2004. Six years later, the physicists won the Nobel Prize for their efforts, and for good reason.

Graphene’s properties are extraordinary, as shown in emerging products that incorporate the material: better-sounding headphones, cooler smartphones, tougher roads, and more environmentally friendly shampoo packaging.

Not only is graphene the world’s thinnest and second-strongest material—a one-dimensional form of carbon called carbyne has overtaken it there—but it’s incredibly light and transparent. It’s also either very flexible or very stiff, depending on how it’s treated. It’s among the best thermal conductors and the fastest electrical conductors, and it’s also great at letting water through while blocking anything else, making it an excellent filter and barrier. And, as Geim and Novoselov demonstrated, graphene can be quite easy to make.

These properties, plus the Nobel laureates’ remarkable story, led to a ton of graphene hype around a decade ago. But a lot of work still needed to be done, such as figuring out how best to make and wrangle graphene; finding applications where it makes economic sense; and slowly constructing new markets. So the hype died down.

Now, however, the wonder substance’s time may be arriving.

Listen up

“I can hear every musical detail with a level of clarity I’ve only ever experienced from the podium in front of an orchestra,” enthused Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as he endorsed the world’s first graphene-based headphones—a set called GQ, made by a Canadian startup called Ora—in a statement.

Harnessing graphene’s stiffness, lightness, and damping properties—its ability to stop moving as soon as an electrical current stops passing through it—Ora is using graphene oxide to make membranes for headphones and loudspeakers. Novoselov himself has hailed the firm for ensuring that “graphene is officially out of the lab and into the audio world.”

“For almost two decades now, graphene’s theorized properties have been viewed as the ‘holy grail’ diaphragm material for loudspeakers,” says Ora cofounder Ari Pinkas, explaining that speaker designers usually have to compromise on either stiffness, lightness, or damping.

Pinkas says his company is working with major laptop and smartphone brands on making smaller and louder speakers for their devices, with some designs set to launch in 2022. However, citing nondisclosure agreements, he isn’t naming any names.

“When graphene burst onto the scene, it was a wonder material that would change the world,” says Richard Collins, a principal analyst at the advanced-technology market research firm IDTechEx. “To be honest, if you talk to a lot of graphene people, they still think it will change everything.

“What’s happened is, over that 10-year period, you’ve had a lot of companies trial it. You’ve had a lot of end users explore it. Realistically, only now and over the next couple of years we’re reaching that inflection point.”

Hit the road

From audio to asphalt: Graphene’s strength is stirring up interest in the construction industry.

The industry has a long-standing problem with emissions; as much as 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions come from concrete production. The addition of graphene into the mix could help cut those emissions, because it would allow for stronger concrete, which means being able to use less concrete.

But graphene’s ability to quickly and efficiently conduct heat (a property that has led to its use in some recent Huawei smartphones) is also proving useful.

Remember the deadly highway bridge collapse that occurred a couple of years ago in Genoa, Italy? The asphalt on the bridge’s replacement contains graphene powder made by an Italian startup called Directa Plus. This helps distribute heat through the road surface, so in freezing temperatures there’s less likelihood of cold spots generating cracks that eventually become potholes.

“The most impressive property is that this additive is able to triple the life of the road from six to seven years to 18 to 21 years,” claims Giulio Cesareo, Directa Plus cofounder and CEO. But that’s far from the only use for the company’s graphene nanoplatelets.

Cesareo and his American cofounders—who have since sold their shares to the billionaire surgeon turned investor Patrick Soon-Shiong—are veterans of Union Carbide. The Italian joined the U.S. chemical giant (now owned by Dow) just after the 1984 Bhopal disaster, in which a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India leaked gas and poisoned more than half a million people.

The aftermath of that tragedy fueled Cesareo’s interest in the environment and sustainability, which is now playing out in Directa Plus’s work.

For one thing, Directa Plus’s method of producing graphene is based on physics rather than chemistry—instead of using chemicals to grow the substance on metal, it uses extreme heat and pressure to exfoliate graphene from graphite particles. This, says Cesareo, makes it easier and cheaper to produce graphene-based fabrics that can be safely worn on the skin, in clothing and face masks (both of which are on the market, using Directa Plus’s graphene.)

The company has also been working with Russia’s Lukoil and Austria’s OMV on decontaminating soil and water that has been polluted through oil spills in Romania. Because graphene is able to block most fluids while letting only water through, Directa Plus’s powder is being used in barriers that absorb spilled oil, cleaning up the surround. When saturated, they can effectively be squeezed out and used again.

“We removed 400 tons of crude oil that was sent back to the refinery,” says Cesareo of early deployments.

Greener packaging

Graphene’s utility as a flexible barrier is naturally very handy in the world of packaging—again, with environmental benefits in mind.

This month, a U.K.-based startup called Toraphene unveiled a biopolymer that it says provides the first fully biodegradable, compostable, and commercially viable alternative to plastic packaging. The eponymous material, which combines graphene with natural polymers from plants, is being deployed first in shopping bags.

But the real breakthrough—the one which launched Toraphene’s journey in 2011, when its founders were researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology—will be in packaging for liquids.

CEO Gaute Juliussen says the consumer goods giant Unilever approached Toraphene four years ago, asking for a better shampoo sachet (Unilever confirms the companies had discussions.) Current sachets use a few layers of plastic for strength and one of aluminum oxide, to provide a barrier against the liquid oozing out. Toraphene says its material provides the strength and impermeability that is needed, but in a form that can be easily recycled as it is just organics and carbon.

In any case, the Unilever discussions fell through: After two years of contract negotiations, Juliussen says, Kraft Heinz’s attempted hostile takeover prompted big cost-cutting measures in order to boost dividends, and R&D was hit hard. With Toraphene’s contacts now having been let go, there was no deal, and the startup turned to a just completed (and heavily oversubscribed) round of crowdfunding to get its barrier packaging to market.

“The type of graphene we are looking at for packaging will currently cost in bulk around $200 per kilo,” says Juliussen. That’s high—IDTechEx’s Collins says some companies are selling graphene for under $10 per kilogram these days. But Toraphene’s graphene comes from quarried graphite rather than being synthesized at low cost, an approach which can create an inferior product.

“Because we use so little of it [less than 0.2% of the packaging is graphene] we are able to make economic packaging with it,” says Juliussen. “It adds maybe 10% or so to the cost, but then we add strength to the packaging of more than 20%. Net-net, we are able to confer a benefit.”

Next stop: paper coffee cups, which currently use a plastic lining for impermeability that also makes them difficult to recycle. Toraphene has filed a patent for the use of its material as a lining, and is currently working on approval from U.S. and European food-standards regulators.

According to Collins, it’s this sort of area where graphene could really find success. (IDTechEx reckons the market for various kinds of graphene material will be worth $700 million by 2031, up from under $100 million today.) Yes, there are consumer products that are upsold based on their use of graphene—headphones, tennis rackets, shoes—but “success is having hundreds to thousands of tons of your material being sold,” he says.

“The reality is, if you talk to an automotive company, they’re not going to spend money on a wear-resistant liner, because graphene adds marketing,” Collins says. “It’s the economics over the lifetime of the product—does it make sense? That’s the thrust of that inflection point.”

Charging forward

Which brings us finally to one of the most talked about companies currently operating in the graphene space: Skeleton Technologies.

The Estonian-German firm has contracts with some of Europe’s biggest automotive names—though it’s reluctant to publicize them for now—and not for liner material, but for energy storage in graphene-based batteries.

If you stack normal, flat graphene layers, they clump together and you end up with graphite again. So Skeleton developed a proprietary method of making curved graphene, which overcomes this problem. It uses this curved graphene in ultracapacitors.

That means batteries that can be charged in seconds, a million times over, with no need for scarce materials such as lithium and cobalt. These ultracapacitors are already being used in excavators, in medical equipment, and in transport: In the German cities of Mannheim, Heidelberg, and Ludwigshafen, they are recuperating trams’ braking energy and reusing it for acceleration.

“It’s cheaper and smaller than any type of battery solution,” says Skeleton CEO Taavi Madiberk. However, because these ultracapacitors store less energy than traditional lithium-ion batteries, it’s likely that graphene ultracapacitors will coexist with and complement other technologies.

According to Madiberk, curved graphene’s biggest benefit is in handling the peak loads that cause standard lithium-ion batteries to overheat and to degrade over time; combining the two allows for battery packs that are 30% smaller and twice as long-lasting. He also talks up the potential of Skeleton’s ultracapacitors in maintaining electrical-grid stability as relatively unpredictable renewables become more predominant.

Skeleton has been developing its technology since the early days of graphene, in 2009, but it only started commercializing its ultracapacitors a couple of years ago. With a contract backlog that already exceeds €150 million ($182 million), it raised €41 million in an October investment round to scale up and prepare for its launch of “super-batteries,” for which Madiberk sees a potential €60 billion market.

“Maybe in 2009, if I’d known how long it takes, I’m not sure we would have started the company,” says Madiberk, whose background is in e-commerce. “In terms of graphene and getting to the market, it’s patience, patience, patience.”