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Ever since its discovery in 2004, graphene has been compared to previous breakthroughs in materials science. The title for Miracle Material has been passed down from steel to aluminum to plastic, all with different degrees of accuracy. Despite the hype, there might be more to it this time around.
What makes graphene special? Why is it different from steel, aluminum, or plastic? Nobel Prize winners Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov’s initial research was focused on microscopically thin derivations of carbon. After a now-famous experiment, they were able to isolate a one atom thick honeycomb sheet of carbon by peeling Scotch tape off of a small block of graphite. The result confirmed theories about the existence of a whole new class of physical objects: two-dimensional materials. Graphene exists in a category all by itself.
The properties of these materials can be truly miraculous. Graphene is proven to be completely impermeable and two hundred times stronger than steel, promising industry-changing breakthroughs in construction, composites, and water filtration, to name a few. By virtue of being a single layer of atoms, graphene is incredibly flexible and light, all while being an efficient conductor of heat and electricity. These properties make it an ideal component in futuristic applications such as flexible electronics, nanosensors, 3D printers, and improved batteries.
Curiously, graphene can imbue other materials with its properties as well, expanding the reach of applications into new territories. A notable example is our product OG Concrete Admix, an additive that strengthens cement significantly, replacing rebar in certain applications and saving millions in construction costs. It’s no wonder many consider graphene to be a real-life philosopher's stone. A valuable material produced by a common one, that can, in turn, make other materials possess prized qualities.
Not everything about graphene is golden, however. Implementing these materials presents a whole new set of challenges. After the simple yet inefficient Scotch tape technique, researchers have experimented diligently with graphene isolation methods that go beyond prototypes and proofs-of-concept. The results have been modest, at best. The problem comes back to the microscopic. It’s hard to produce graphene that is what scientists call “shelf-stable.” The material always wants to go back to its natural state of being graphite, creating complications for scalable production.
Likewise, the industry sectors that could benefit the most from graphene adoption and implementation tend to be very conservative. They don’t welcome change until the improvements are evident and meet their criteria of quality, affordability, and reliability. Graphene’s leap from the lab and into our everyday lives is still a task for pragmatic companies that can find the right workarounds to graphene supply and manufacturing.
Meanwhile, there is a growing demand for this miracle material. The graphene market is expected to grow 38% by 2025.
Solutions such as Mobile Graphene Container Systems are the first to tackle the problem of sustainable supply. However, they are still the first baby steps to unlocking the potential of two-dimensional materials. While some see graphene implementation following the historical trends of previous miracle materials, namely decades of delayed applications, it’s not unreasonable to expect a faster turn of events for graphene.
For Sergei Voskresensky, our Head of Research and Development, this is precisely the mistake we unwittingly make. We’re still coming from a 20th-century perspective, conducting experiments with centuries-old tools, and imagining hundred-year incremental upgrades to technologies that will perhaps become outdated altogether. Graphene development is taking place in a completely new era of information technology. Most of the barriers that delayed the reaping of the benefits of previous materials are virtually non-existent today. The resources, data, and know-how that are needed to implement graphene wherever possible are more accessible than ever.
Our ongoing collaboration with partners in new fields such as 3D printing is an example of what is possible. Graphene promises even more than the order-of-magnitude improvements that current applications are starting to deliver on. In the coming decades, it will introduce a paradigm shift into multiple industries, both existing and emerging.
Part of our vision is to accelerate this process and bring practical solutions for 21st-century technologies. Judging by the results, we could start reaping the benefits of a new miracle material sooner than expected.
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