Graphene taking the heat for hand-held devices, other electronic apps
Jul 10, 2015
At IDTechEx we have invited a number of leading players in the graphene industry to write opinion pieces, reflecting on their products, latest research, market insight, and commercialisation experience. We will be releasing these articles over the next few weeks.
This article is by Mr Ian Fuller, of Angstron Materials, a US graphene company with one of the largest production capacities worldwide.
To learn more about the industry, please refer to our report Graphene and 2D Materials: Markets, Technologies, and Opportunities 2015-2025.
Graphene will help solve thermal management issues
Graphene has been dubbed the wonder material because of its remarkable properties - namely high strength-to-weight ratio and high electrical and thermal conductivity. One magazine stated recently that "graphene is potentially one of the hottest new materials since silicon," referring to its potential for the hand-held devices market. The electronics industry as a whole is growing by leaps and bounds making it fertile soil for the development of graphene-based products that can conduct heat away from delicate internal components and optimize the performance of batteries.
One global information company (The NDP Group) released a report stating that U.S. homes now have more than half a billion devices connected to the internet. The NDP statistic equates to about 6 devices per average household; twice the number of people typically occupying a residence. It's not likely this market space will slow down when you consider the launch of new devices this year like the Apple watch and Samsung's announcement that it will soon release the foldable tablet. Smartphone users are expected to reach more than 2 billion worldwide by 2016.
For manufacturers this market growth means finding new thermal management methods that offer design flexibility and can adapt effectively to the ongoing miniaturization of processors being designed to perform myriad functions. The big question seems to focus on how to make the material at commercial scale capacities and put it in a form people can use. In general, the leap to mainstream commercialization has lagged leading some to feel that extracting the full potential of graphene is too great a technological challenge.
Obstacles to commercialization
My experience in the industry shows me that obstacles to mainstream commercialization can be eliminated with a practical approach built on three primary components. At Angstron Materials we started with the raw material. Customers are more knowledgeable about graphene then they were even two or three years ago but there is still a lot of work to be done to craft user friendly products.
Graphene in its raw powder form has proved problematic for some end users because achieving the right mixture requires a specialized skill set. Larger companies have also expressed environmental, health and safety concerns about exposure to raw nanomaterials.
We've eliminated both those problems by developing different types of carrier systems to suit different end applications. Angstron Materials is one of a handful of manufacturers able to supply graphene encapsulated within a polymer.
Once a company is equipped with the right carrier system, proper dispersion is key; especially for applications that include compounding graphene for use in an intermediary. Agglomeration can introduce defects that can hinder performance gains. This is especially true of applications that require enhanced mechanical properties where uniform dispersion is crucial. Thermal conductivity and electrical transport properties on the other hand, rely more on a conductive network. High loading levels can be achieved with a variety of thermoplastics and thermosets, but processing conditions and use of the right graphene material dictate that the "recipe" be tailored to the application.
Functionalized graphene can be used to assist with the dispersion and coupling of graphene once it's dispersed into its base material. Angstron has developed techniques that make it possible to load graphene up to 50 percent by weight into thermoplastics to produce graphene-enhanced masterbatches.
Largest market segment
If a company has successfully navigated these steps then the second major hurdle is to identify a viable market. We see the largest demand for graphene in thermal management and as a result, it has been a focus for development of new thermal management products. Our primary product - thermal film or foil - looks like a piece of gray paper with a similar thickness (of 25 microns). We're also able to tailor-make the foil to thinner dimensions for greater design flexibility.
A market's entry level criterion is another factor to consider. A number of industries dictate multiple property requirements for applications and that can mean a heavy financial investment in development upfront. Thermal management's lower threshold for market entry requirements makes it attractive to manufacturers. Currently there are three primary methods for producing thermal foils; polyimide-derived sheets, chemical vapor deposition of graphite and simple sheets made from compressed graphite. We think Angstron's thermal foil and its capacity for customization will be easier to sell but there are other components to the equation that have to be considered.
Cost is, by far, the number one selection criteria for graphene-based thermal management products. Angstron's thermal foil is a lower cost option when compared to other methods on the market. Our ability to change foil dimensions to customer requirements at lower cost and equivalent or better performance is unique. Other methods are limited in this area. It's also important to look at performance parameters for applications before a company goes shopping for material. Graphene's multi-functional nature allows it to effectively provide thermal conductivity, electrical conductivity and mechanical improvements simultaneously if called for. This inherent characteristic sets it apart from most other fillers currently available such as carbon nanotubes. It is easier to disperse and functionalize than other carbon nanomaterials. Graphene also holds an advantage over nanocomposites due to its ability to transmit multi-functionality once it is dispersed into a base material such as polypropylene or high density polyethylene.
The third major component in the commercialization equation is manufacturing capability. You can have a product but the end user isn't likely to invest in an evaluation unless they know you can demonstrate capacity. It can be difficult to deliver on capacity if a company isn't sure whether or not the market will be there.
Angstron Materials has ramped up large scale manufacturing in Taiwan with the capacity to deliver 300 tons of graphene a year. The production facility is ISO 9001-certified and the product meets the market's electrical, thermal, strength and density requirements. The material is also ROHS compliant.
When you look at the development of graphene, it's important to remember that although the first gram was produced in 2002, the capacity for large production of thermal foils for example didn't become available until 2014. Dr. Bor Jang, co-founder of Angstron Materials, and Wen Huang patented the first production method for pristine graphene under U.S. patent number 7,071,258 in October 2002, two years before the first research paper on graphene was published.
We chose Taiwan to provide regional support to our customers. We're currently working with a handful of companies at different stages of commercialization. The majority of major electronics OEMS are located in Taiwan, Korea and China which is still the world's leading supplier. Vietnam is also an emerging player in the field. The country is currently the 12th largest electronics exporter. We don't see large-scale manufacturing coming back to Europe or the U.S. in the near term.
We see substantial demand for our thermal management products, which also includes paste and pads, coming from the automotive industry but we expect the hand-held devices market to remain the largest consumer.
Down the road? The barrier properties of graphene-based composites have already earned the attention of industries like packaging and oil and gas. The ability to prevent liquids and gasses from diffusing through a container or protect contents from water and oxygen could have a major impact in terms of cost savings for these companies.