There’s a lot of hype around graphene right now. ‘The key to industry 4.0’, the answer to affordable super batteries and the foundation of a low carbon economy (ironic since graphene is carbon) – all strident messages of advocacy. And all possible.
But the future of graphene is not about graphene itself. It lies in the vast possibilities that graphene unlocks in other materials and applications.
In fact, many materials engineers think that, 20 years from now, graphene will have become so ubiquitous it will have ‘disappeared’, having evolved into one of the foundation materials of modern engineering, manufacturing and IT&T.
And it’s this sheer speed of adoption that has graphene watchers transfixed. Graphene’s twin attributes of low cost and ease of implementation distinguish graphene from many other ‘super materials’ that, having experienced their moment in the sun, descend into the Gartner Trough of Disillusionment and never quite make it out. And it’s these and other very salient properties that are exciting to both scientists and investors.
Graphene could be described as coming in two flavours; one can be termed physicist and the other chemist.
Physicist graphene is grown by the square metre and is often transparent – a semi-conductor one atom thick that is used in electronic applications such as flexible phone screens and computer processors. It’s expensive for now, but it is enabling the re-imagining of existing electronics on a mind-blowing scale. Think paper-thin, flexible indium-tin oxide phone screens or 3D structured micro-supercapacitor electrodes and LEDs.
Then there’s chemist graphene. It comes from graphite or natural gas. It is the Model T-Ford of graphene in that it comes in any colour you like as long as it is black. And it does anything and everything (except not be black). It improves the properties of other materials, making them better in important ways. Much better. And it is this accessibility that makes chemist graphene the key to the potential ubiquity of graphene. You don’t have to be a scientist, for example, to wield a spray can of graphene enhanced paint on the heat exchanger of an air conditioner and make it 30% more efficient. Or to put graphene-enhanced lubricants in vehicles to make them use less fuel. Or to experience the incredible benefits of sensing floors, longer life LEDs, low-energy water filtration or an iPhone battery with twice the life that charges in 6 minutes (this list, by the way, that grows longer by the week).
It is also a fact that Australia boasts many of the world’s leading advanced materials engineers. At least four local companies are producing multi-tonne quantities of graphene and using the output to improve the qualities of other existing products the world over while also creating new products with new features. So, while over 250 companies produce graphene or graphene-enabled products around the world, we are firmly on the main stage for this incredible material.
And with that comes an opportunity. And an obligation. The world knows about Australia’s leadership role in graphene technology. Our work is viewed with keen interest by the leaders of German, Chinese, American and British OEMs across a range of industries as well as some of the world’s leading universities.
The Federal Government’s Technology Road Map is a promising development in providing a catalyst for growth. And the Victorian Government has lent some very prescient and valued support. But our competitors are supported with billions of dollars-worth of investment in the commercialisation.
This must change. The role of the AGIA as a peak body is to ensure that Australia’s leadership in graphene is not squandered only to be sold back to us in value added goods. The Federal government and its State counterparts must lend support to those developing and commercialising graphene.
Only then will our graphene-enabled industry realise its true potential.