Graphene commercialization: a look back at the story so far
Graphene is not a young material: the Nobel Prize was awarded in 2010 and the first pioneering firms were established before that c. 2006. Graphene thus has more than a decade of commercial experience already. As IDTechEx have argued previously, after all this time, graphene is becoming increasingly available and affordable and is finally findings its first wave of volume markets. In this article, we will look at the evolution of graphene commercialization so far and will offer some insights about the future.
This article is based on our continuous research programme on graphene, CNTs and other 2D materials. It draws heavily from Graphene, 2D Materials and Carbon Nanotubes: Markets, Technologies and Opportunities 2018-2028. This report provides the most comprehensive analysis of graphene, CNTs and 2D materials. It offers detailed technology reviews, up-to-date assessment of past, present and future of prices and production capacities, insightful yet critical application analysis, and ten-year segmented market forecasts segmented by application. This report also has extensive coverage of the industry players. Note that IDTechEx research activity closely aligns with their conference and exhibition programme on graphene. In the past 6 years, IDTechEx have organized 12 commercially focused graphene events. These events place co-locate graphene alongside its end use sectors such as energy storage, electric vehicles, printed electronics, wearable technology and so on as part of the IDTechEx Show!. All the key players have participated in IDTechEx events over the years, giving unprecedent insight into the evolution of the industry. The next event Graphene & 2D Materials USA 2018 will take place on 14-15 Nov 2018 and already has an excellent speaker programme including the likes of BASF, NanoXplore, GGG, XG Science, Cabot, Birla, Toyota, Graphmatech, Callaway, The Graphene Council, CNM Technologies, FlexeGraph, ZapGo, Bonbouton, Huafeng, Ionic Industry, Grapheneca, and others. Read more at www.GrapheneUSA.tech .
The different phases of growing up so far
Phase 1: The first graphene firms were established. At this stage, most fanned the flames of hype. Some did so to raise funds and others to secure major long-term grants. Everyday a new paper or a press release would proclaim graphene as the revolutionary savour of some application or industry. In this phase, first major rounds of major investments were committed, first attempts at setting up small-sized production facilities were made, and many performance demonstrators and claims were announced.
Phase 2: In this phase the number of graphene companies mushroomed. At the time, many small and lean operation sprouted around the world. The hype and the investment commitment, particularly large-scale research investment, provided the signal that the market was attractive. The media also facilitated this by continuing to pump its euphoretic message. Most companies sold small-volumes of high-priced graphene for research purposes. Equipment suppliers- small and large- did well. Some attempted to move beyond just performance demonstration, seeking to engage in a real qualification process. However, there efforts were hampered by the fact that the end users were confused about what graphene actually was and what it actually could deliver and also by the fact that suppliers lacked scale, experience and quality control. At this time, many firms were suffering from an opportunity overdose, seeking to chase every possible lead in diverse unrelated industries all around the world. They were struggling to focus and to efficiently allocate their limited resources.
Phase 3: In this phase some companies took the leap into the darkness, seeking to overcome that classic chicken-and-egg conundrum by finally investing in large capacity. The number of companies in this phase continued to increase, albeit at a reduced rate. However, at the same time, signs were appearing that some were struggling and exiting in silence. By this time, suppliers and end users had developed a more nuanced and realistic view. On the end user side, they had moderated their expectations, had become more aware of the challenges particularly on the processing (dispersion) side, and had narrowed down the list of target applications. On the supplier side, they were beginning to pay more attention to factors such as safety, consistency of supplier, and cost of production. All in all, however, the industry remained loss making, leading to the fear that graphene would at best become a low-value substitute that lacked a bright future. Disappear seemed to be setting in some corners.
Table showing the different phase of the evolution of graphene commercialization process. Source: IDTechEx. For more information read Graphene, 2D Materials and Carbon Nanotubes: Markets, Technologies and Opportunities 2018-2028.
Phase 4: The industry evolved again in this phase. Graphene defined its market value proposition and felt more confident even as it remains largely a substitute or adcarditive. Production processes were improved, and new methods adopted, expanding the quality and price of graphene on offer. Many finally overcame their fear of premature product commoditization and began to cut prices, even offering products at loss, to simulate demand. New territories such as China began to appear on the competitive landscape as major players. These new players signalled to the market that they intended to turn graphene into a volume and cost business. Throughout this phase, the revenues across the board grew in the background. However, the industry remained loss making since growth in costs (R&D, capacity, etc) outpaced growth in revenue.
Phase 5: This is current phase. Multiple companies have established notable capacity, making graphene increasingly available. China and Taiwan are major territories today, representing most of nominal capacity. Exfoliaiton has come to represent the most common production process. At the same time, some European and North American firms are seeking to rebalance the competitive map, exploring ways to massively scale up. For many, the sales price has fallen below the $100/Kg market although notable price/cost differences persist. The competition on volume and price basis has intensified. A few qualification processes have finally converted, yielding the first wave of notable commercial consumption. Many more qualification processes are still going through their final hurdles. Graphene remains an additive or a replacement yet end users have had time to much better explore the application space, finding previously-unimagined niche sectors in which graphene delivers value. Signs of consolidation are appearing faster, again with many leaving without fanfare. Revenues continue their growth however still the industry remains in the red.
The different phases of growing up in the future
Phase 6: This phase is about the short-term future. We can already see the silhouette of this emerging phase. Demand increase accelerates, allowing companies to increase revenue and capacity utilization. This, in turn, will enable suppliers to cut prices further although there will not be a single convergence price, reflecting the difference in graphene quality. The question is whether graphene can overtake MWCNTs in cost or not. This seems a realistic yet unproven prospect. Consolidation phase will accelerate, leading many more small producers to leave whilst volume leaders emerge. This business scene however will not become static. New players will enter but more likely as application developers and not graphene producers. This trend will be seeded by the increased availability and affordability of graphene. First signs of profit will appear.
Phase 7: Revenue growth will accelerate from 2021/2022. By this time many qualification processes will have converted. The industry- both on the supplier and end user sides- will have extensive accumulative know-how. The right applications will have been proven and graphene will have become more performance and cost competitive. This phase will be one of volume and revenue growth, finally tipping the industry into black (profit).
To learn more see the IDTechEx Research report Graphene, 2D Materials and Carbon Nanotubes: Markets, Technologies and Opportunities 2018-2028. It provides the most comprehensive analysis of graphene, CNTs and 2D materials. The report offers detailed technology reviews, up-to-date assessment of past, present and future of prices and production capacities, insightful yet critical application analysis, and ten-year segmented market forecasts segmented by application. This report also has extensive coverage of the industry players. To become a part of the industry join Graphene & 2D Materials USA 2018 in Santa Clara, CA on November 14-15. There is also an IDTechEx masterclass taking place in the same venue on November 13, Introduction to Graphene, Carbon Nanotubes & Non-Graphene 2D Materials, given by Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, Research Director at IDTechEx, and Dr Angelos Kyrlidis, R&D Director, Advanced Carbons at Cabot Corporation. Find out more here.
Top image: Washington University in St Louis