Following decades of development, 2021 and 2022 are set to be notable years for the graphene industry, as it finally approaches an inflection point. Some in the graphene sector are now seeing their labors bear fruit in the form of commercial success - but that is not the case for everyone, as IDTechEx
's report, "Graphene Market and 2D Materials Assessment 2021-2031
IDTechEx, an acknowledged leader in market intelligence, has released a comprehensive market report on the subject and forecasts that the market for graphene materials will reach $700m in 2031. The study gives detailed technical information about the graphene sector, including granular 10-year forecasts, comprehensive manufacturer analysis, and application analysis.
Graphene - moving from lab to market
From a commercial perspective, the graphene industry can be viewed in terms of four categories, each with its own status and outlook.
Graphene nanoplatelets (typically 5-10 layers)
This group constitutes the bulk of the industry and includes graphene nanoplatelets of various names and property variations (in terms of lateral size, surface area, purity, etc.). In general, this group can be considered a likely next-generation improvement to carbon black or graphite.
This category of graphene has a wide range of potential applications and is becoming increasingly available and affordable - prices are dropping and orders are coming in. In the long term, IDTechEx expects this to become a consolidated market, with far fewer players than exist today. Comparison with appropriate sectors (eg carbon black) makes this look very likely, if not inevitable.
There are some obvious frontrunners in this field. Sixth Element claims to have secured the largest single order to date, for smartphone thermal management, and NanoXplore has the largest capacity, having opened a 4,000 tpa plant in 2020. However, important lessons can be learned from graphene's older sibling, multi-walled carbon nanotubes
(MWCNTs) - that industry went through a period of premature capacity expansion, and is only now seeing notable growth again, with key players in Cnano, LG Chem
and new entrant Cabot
, following their 2020 acquisition of SUSN. For graphene, as with many materials, it is important to understand the significant role of China-based companies in the market's expansion.
Within the field of 5-10-layer graphene nanoplatelets there are many companies vying for success, and currently, nearly all are making year-on-year losses. What is more, the competition is constantly increasing. IDTechEx does not expect that all of these companies will remain in the market for the next decade; success will depend on significant investment and scale, strategic business models, proven profitability and/or essential partnerships.
To date, there has been much publicity around the use of graphene in several applications, and that marketing has been useful. Over the next decade, those applications where graphene adds value will be established and what is now a 'wonder product' will simply be the natural choice, included for its performance without fanfare. From fast-charging graphene batteries
to wear-resistant liners, orders are growing in sectors where this will occur.
'Pure graphene' powder or flakes (ideally 1-2 layers)
Some companies, and many research and development centers, produce what many would term 'pure graphene'. This material, which to date has been mostly used in academia and some small commercial trials, has the potential to generate notable change in many applications.
The challenge lies in the commercialization of such products, of moving beyond the lab and into the market. It is hard to produce very high-quality graphene at scale while keeping the product affordable. Challenges and questions also arise with functionalizing and integrating the material without compromising its performance or properties. Thus, these materials are typically at an early stage of their commercial development and deployment, and market players often do not sell graphene as powders, but as integrated forms or even final products. Indeed, some companies have told IDTechEx that they became graphene manufacturers not because they wanted to, but because they could not find a product of sufficiently high quality to meet their own needs.
Graphene wafers have a promising mid- and long-term future. Electronic applications were an obvious early attraction for graphene players, given the impressive mobility; many became excited around the potential in transistors or as a replacement material in transparent conductive films (TCFs). However, given the lack of band gap, manufacturing challenges and the quality of the incumbent materials, these applications turned out not to be viable. Instead, the key applications have been established as sensor and optoelectronic applications, and the early stages of market adoption are now visible.
As with graphene platelets, scale-ups are now being seen, with the likes of Graphenea
and Grolltex taking significant positions in the graphene wafer field. Beyond that, there are many exciting companies, such as Paragraf and Kukil Graphene, gaining notable funding and attention.
The quest to produce graphene sheets has a long history. The idea of a film of chemical vapor deposition (CVD
)-grown graphene, produced roll-to-roll, has at times seemed like the holy grail. There have been notable steps forward in this field, primarily in the challenges of transfer and in ensuring the quality of products. However, the market pull has not fully materialized - yet. This sector is still looking for the killer application, but with manufacturers leaving the market and large companies deprioritizing their graphene sheet projects it will be some time before substantial commercial adoption is seen.
Is the promise of graphene unfulfilled - or just delayed?
It could be said that there is a general disillusionment with graphene. People expected it to change the world more than a decade ago, but the reality is very different. The tracking of investments and share prices may suggest that interest is declining, but there are subtleties within those patterns that should not be overlooked. Share prices have in general declined since their initial offerings, but not for all, and for some market players the recent trends show an upturn, as orders come in, announcements are made and confidence grows.
The early-stage investments may have declined but, more importantly, they have shifted. The level of investment now required is very high and therefore more likely to be achieved through a large acquisition or public company status. The early-stage investment has therefore pivoted towards predominantly wafer-related companies or graphene-enabled product-based companies.
IDTechEx has been active in the graphene field for a very long period, and this extensive knowledge and its detailed understanding of the relevant target markets inform the latest update to its trusted market report, "Graphene Market and 2D Materials Assessment 2021-2031
The IDTechEx report also contains a detailed analysis of the latest developments for nanotubes and 2D materials beyond carbon variants. These are at a far earlier stage commercially, but with diverse properties, they open the door to a much wider range of applications. It also presents more than 45 company profiles, based on detailed latest interviews from leading companies.
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