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Editor's Blog and Industry Comments

Will Graphene trigger the next big electronics revolution?

17 November, 2013
Senior electronics executives attending IPC’s recent Management Meetings and Technology Market Research Conference in Chicago were treated to a positive and intriguing look into the future of the materials market.

“Despite its increasing maturity, electronics remains one of the best global chemicals and materials markets” said Phil Plonski, managing director, Prismark Partners. Plonski forecasted an average compounded annual growth rate of 5.6% for the electronics materials market, topping $176 billion by 2017, seeing the largest opportunities for new technologies in the areas of energy storage and conversion and semiconductor wafer fabrication. While there are many potential customers working in energy storage and conversion, Plonski’s research showed that only 100 semiconductor fabricators remain globally as a result of industry consolidation trends.


Graphene’s promise


There are, however, a number of new nanomaterials that may blow these market projections off the charts. One of the most promising is graphene, a form of carbon that is only one atom thick, and the first two-dimensional material to be discovered in 2004. Since then, graphene has been hailed as “the natural wonder” of the materials world. To separate hype from fact, IPC enlisted Tomas Palacios to speak at its technology market research conference. Palacios is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and heads the MIT Center for Graphene Devices and Systems (MIT-CG), a collaborative group of scientists, engineers and researchers formed to develop market applications.


His explanation of graphene’s properties revealed why the material is so special and why more than 9000 graphene-related patent applications have already been filed (200 times stronger than structural steel). Graphene is not only the thinnest and strongest possible material available, it is perfectly transparent and flexible and is 1000 times more conductive than silicon, the basic building block of semiconductors. What’s more, it is inert and reduces corrosion.


With these remarkable characteristics all in one material, Palacios sees graphene as “fuelling the next electronics revolution” in applications ranging from energy harvesting, sensing, energy storage and wireless communication. MIT-CG is working on developing everything from graphene transistors to transparent displays to night vision systems in cars. Additionally, they are exploring applications integrating graphene with other two-dimensional materials. Palacios envisions the day when electronic displays are embedded into pieces of paper, windows and clothes.


There are, however, some formidable challenges to commercialising graphene. While carbon is cheap, no best way has yet been identified to manufacture it in large quantities, or in a way gentle enough not to impact its properties. Manufacturability is just one aspect of the need to establish an entire graphene ecosystem.


Nano now


Other nanomaterials have been sold in specific and usable formats for the last decade. Patrick Murray, vice president of R&D at Nanophase Technologies is the inventor or co-inventor of 12 US patents, and like Palacios, encouraged conference attendees to think small. Among his company’s nanotechnology successes is its formulation combining zinc oxide and titanium dioxide for radiation protection, which many top brand cosmetic manufacturers currently use in their sunscreens, moisturizers and makeup. Nanophase has also developed high transparency, high gloss coatings that are now in use to protect electronic devices.


What other applications are likely in the near future? Murray sees nanomaterials used for everything from environmental remediation (think nano-scaled air filters that remove viruses and odors in airplanes) to in vivo biological event recognition and reporting — detecting diseases in the body before they occur. Nanomaterials can be the bridge to turn sci-fi technologies into reality.


Edited by Andy Pye

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