Initial hype over, graphene is showing up in real products

The so-called wonder material has been theory for years, but companies are finally bringing graphene to market

tweezers holding small graphene sheet

A sample of graphene in the lab (Leszek Skymanski/Corbis)

There’s a problem with LED bulbs. These lights generate a lot of heat, which must be conducted away by bulky metal heat sinks. But it’s possible to make LED light bulbs more attractive, using a material that’s cheaper, more energy efficient and less obtrusive: graphene.

Discovered in 2004 by researchers at the University of Manchester in England, graphene is the high-quality version of graphite (the stuff that pencil lead is made of) and is just one atom thick. It’s been hailed as a wonder material because it’s stronger than steel, very inexpensive to produce and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity. About $2.4 billion in research and development funding has been spent on graphene over the past decade, and 7,740 patents related to the material were issued between 2008 and 2012. Accordingly, a lot of hype has built up around graphene. It’s supposed to replace silicon in semiconductors to create a whole new class of super-fast computers and solve water scarcity by making large-scale desalinization possible. Those fanciful applications are many years away from being a reality, however. The first tangible uses of graphene are only now starting to emerge, starting with light bulbs.

Graphene Lighting, based in Manchester, coats the back of the LED with graphene ink, removing the need for a heat sink and reportedly reducing energy use by up to 10%. “If you compare it to the LED bulb you can buy in a Rona right now, it’s much simpler,” says Christopher Hobbs, a Toronto-based investment banker at Industrial Alliance Securities Inc., and an adviser to Graphene Lighting. “It looks like a traditional incandescent light bulb, for the most part.” The company is a spinoff of BGT Materials, a graphene commercialization firm in which the University of Manchester has the largest stake. Earlier this year, Hobbs facilitated US$3.2-million in funding for Graphene Lighting, with most of the money coming from Canadian investors.

Hobbs says the next step is to work with retailers and potential consumers to finalize the specifications and design of an off-the-shelf product, which could be ready in months. That could make it the first commercially viable consumer graphene product to hit the market. The company is also working on a version of the bulb for use in commercial and office environments, and is in talks with an Ontario utility interested in providing the fixtures to its customers.

Ottawa-based Grafoid is taking a different approach, combining graphene with existing industrial polymers. “You end up with a stronger material that is less expensive,” says Gary Economo, the company’s CEO. For example, a graphene-enhanced nylon polymer could replace PEEK, a material used extensively in the aerospace industry. Grafoid’s polymers could also supplant the more expensive carbon fibre in the automotive sector; some manufacturers will soon use the company’s materials to make internal parts for new and used vehicles. Grafoid has identified 55 short- and medium-term applications for graphene, and the company expects to earn $100 million in revenue by the end of the year. “We don’t just want to be a low-cost supplier of graphene to the market in general,” Economo says. “The only people we work with are companies that pay us a royalty by using our material.”

Economo says there was “way too much hype” about graphene’s potential after its discovery. Rather than focusing on quickly developing real-world applications, researchers competed to win theoretical patents. “A lot of the applications that were flying around would take 10 to 30 years to get to production,” he says. Engineering and scientific expertise in the material has so far been concentrated in academia. But the patent rush is slowing, and even major companies are starting to invest in bringing graphene out of the lab and into living rooms—for example, Samsung’s touch screen panels based on the material will make wearable devices more physically flexible.

Also on Hobbs’ agenda is the rollout of Graphene Security Corp., another BGT Materials spinoff, which is using graphene to replace the aluminum in radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. It could have major implications for the emerging Internet of Things market, since graphene-based RFID tags can transmit further and are cheaper to produce than existing ones. Other potential applications include improving battery chemistry, which could make electrifying the transportation industry a realistic possibility, and developing antimicrobial coatings for use in medical facilities. Graphene could be added to a host of existing products to make them stronger, more efficient and cheaper. One way or another, graphene will be coming to a product near you soon—and that’s not hype.