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Graphene: many different types are confusing the market

ID TechEx : 03 June, 2013  (Special Report)
Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, Senior Technology Analyst, IDTechEx looks at the hard question that still remain about what comes next and how to grow revenues from graphene.

Graphene has already come a long way towards commercialisation, despite its short history. Manufacturers are busy closing their second or third round of financing and many are installing multi-tonne production capacities across the world. At the same, many are moving up the value chain beyond simple powders to offer formulations and master-batches. The industry is also slowly realising that graphene is still far away from high frequency application, and is therefore looking for more realistic and lower hanging fruits. All these factors indicate that the hype is beginning to pass.

IDTechEx Research thoroughly analyzed the market and technology for graphene and has published its findings in Graphene Opportunities 2013-2018. The company has been closely tracking this for more than a year now and has developed close relationships with almost all suppliers and end users in the industry.

Two main factors are acting as hard brakes on commercial growth of graphene. The first is that there is market confusion (and thus risks for the end user) and the second is that the main go-to-market strategy is replacing a well-entrenched incumbent. The industry should address both challenges if it is to grow beyond the $100 million dollar market forecast. 

The market confusion stems from the fact that there is no single graphene on the market. Instead, there are many graphene types. Each type is a departure from the ideal form and offers a different package of material properties. It will therefore be suitable for different end uses.

Graphene can also be manufactured using a variety of techniques. This is a positive factor in that it creates more pathways for entering the production business, but it also adds to the overall confusion. This is because each technique produces a somewhat different graphene type with a different price point.

It is currently mostly upon the potential end users and consumers - and there are many of them - to sift through this confusion to evaluate each graphene type and production technique for their own sets of requirements. While it does allow for differentiation between suppliers, it is a barrier against adoption. It therefore will be commercially beneficial if graphene producers collectively establish clear guidelines that will help reduce the risk and burden to the end users.

There are promising signs that the industry is moving to dispel the confusion. Business-driven conferences are playing a positive role in bringing clarity to the market. The industry is already speaking of an association, and players are moving up the value chain en masse to relieve the burden off the end users.

Graphene has yet not identified many applications where it has a first mover advantage. The prevalent go-to-market strategy today is replacing existing incumbents. Here, graphene attempts to do what already exists on the market, only a little bit better and/or a little bit cheaper.

There are many examples that verify this observation:

  • CVD graphene pushes to replace ITO (or even ITO alternatives), but it is more expensive and has a higher sheet resistance.
  • Graphene powders attempt to replace graphite or black carbon in composites as additives, but they are more expensive and the potential reduction in wt% may not be enough to create large and rapid market shares.
  • Graphene competes with activated carbon in supercapacitors, and while it can offer a comparative performance advantage, its premium price will initially confine it to niche and low-volume corners of the business

The industry is moving, albeit very slowly, beyond the ‘replacement’ phase too. Several interesting product concepts include transparent low-cost inks, IR images, low-noise sensors, etc, but more effort and imagination will be required. The alternative will otherwise inevitably be that suppliers will be forced to price to cost, and not to value.

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