Deep Dives

How Graphene Will Disrupt Industry

Skeleton Technologies, an Estonian company that has raised over €92 million in venture capital, is using a material called curved graphene to provide ultracapacitor energy storage in automotive, transportation, grid, and industrial applications. Among other things, it is working with a major German auto maker and separately with one of its investors, Japanese conglomerate Marubeni Corporation, to use its ultracapacitor product as a key enabling technology in the fast-growing global electric vehicle market. When these ultracapacitors are combined with lithium-ion batteries, the batteries used to power cars’ onboard systems can last longer and become smaller and more sustainable, improving overall system efficiency and performance, and helping traditional automakers better compete with new entrants like Tesla, says Skeleton Technologies Vice-President of Innovation Sebastian Pohlmann. “We are also quite sure there will be regulation in Europe to drive lead acid batteries out of cars and that our ultracapacitors paired with lithium-ion batteries can replace them,” he says. He is predicting wide-spread adoption by the auto industry within the next five years.

 Consider it a glimpse of what’s to come. The curved graphene used by Skeleton is not made in the same way as actual graphene, a super-thin, wonder material made up of carbon atoms that are layered together in hexagonal shapes. The Estonian scale-up has invented a way to replicate most of graphene’s properties and is proving that it is possible to produce such material at industrial scale. That is a major feat because up until now graphene has mainly been made in limited batches, in carefully controlled lab settings, to create high-quality material than can be used in experiments. It has proved harder to produce high volumes that maintain the same structural integrity and offer the fullest benefit of things like conductivity. Skeleton Technologies is currently developing and deploying a fully automated ultracapacitor production line in its Großröhrsdorf, Germany factory, an industry first. The company says it expects the cost per stored kilowatt hours in ultracapacitors to decrease by almost 90% within the next five years. 

The Estonian company’s progress, along with recent work by researchers in Europe and elsewhere, illustrate that scaling production of graphene and real-world application by industry is getting closer.

If pundits are right graphene will graduate from being a rare component in niche products and applications to broad market penetration by 2025 and, by 2030, will be as disruptive as silicon was back in the early days of computing.

A Game-Changer

 Developed by two researchers at the University of Manchester in the U.K., Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov — whose work won them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 — graphene is incredibly stable and very thin, yet also a strong conductor of electricity, heat and light. Work is already underway to use graphene to improve automotive batteries, computer vision, biomedical brain implants, solar cells, telecom networks, mobile devices, airplanes, paint, rubber tires, building materials like concrete and more.

The wonder material is seen as such a game-changer that it has sparked a global race to unleash its potential. Governments around the world are pumping money into its development. The European Commission is spending $1.22 billion over 10 years on the Graphene Flagship, which coordinates approximately 170 academic and industrial partners in 22 countries and 90 associates, with the aim of taking the new material out of labs and into commercial products. The Graphene Flagship project has already spun out 12 companies and launched 10 industry-led initiatives to increase the technology readiness level of graphene-based technologies.

The program covers a wide spectrum of businesses and applications.  “Many others are coming,” says Kari Hjelt, Flagship Graphene’s Head of Innovation. “It is happening faster than we thought. We are spinning out businesses, investors are coming in and companies can see a clear path ahead. I see this as a very good development.”

Fueling Change In The Automotive Sector

Graphene is poised to fuel a number of changes in the auto industry.

Improving battery technology for electric vehicles is the focus of one of Flagship Graphene’s industry-led initiatives. Its GrEEnBat project, which was launched in April and includes BMW, is working on an automotive battery module prototype that is composed of 60 to 90 battery electric vehicle cells. The core of the innovation will be the negative electrode of the cell, composed of a silicon-graphene composite developed during earlier Graphene Flagship research projects. Graphene Flagship industrial partners Varta Micro InnovationBeDimensional (one of Graphene Flagship’s spin-out companies) and Varta Microbattery are basing the battery technology on patented graphene fabrication and silicon-graphene compounding processes. The goal is for all targeted specifications for material, cell and module to be competitive with foreseen state-of-the-art modules by 2025.

Graphene Flagship is also targeting other areas in the automotive field. On May 11 it announced its latest spin-out, Qurv Technologies, launched from Graphene Flagship partner ICFO in Barcelona, Spain. Qurv is developiing graphene-enabled wide-spectrum image sensor technologies for next-generation computer vision applications, including those in autonomous cars.

 The focus is on combining the unique electronic properties of graphene with suitable quantum nanoparticles as light sensitizers allow for efficient detection of a broad range of wavelengths – from ultraviolet to infrared light – all concentrated into one simple device. The production and transfer process of graphene leverages existing scalable Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) manufacturing processes. The graphene-based sensor replaces traditional costly alternatives based on indium gallium arsenide, paving the way to SWIR (nonvisible light falling roughly between 1400 and 3000 nanometers in wavelength) imagers up to 1000 times cheaper.

Qurv is also leading Flagship Graphene’s AUTOVISION project, which is developing a new high-resolution image sensor for autonomous vehicles, which can detect obstacles and road curvature even in extreme and difficult driving conditions. This project, which also involves  industrial partners such Aixtron in the UK and Veoneer in Sweden, will produce image sensors based on graphene and quantum-dots, and make them ready for evaluation by the automotive industry.

Currently, self-driving cars use visible cameras, but in dense fog, these cameras are insufficient. Autonomous cars will also use LIDAR sensors, relying on pulsed laser to measure distances and constantly scan the area around them. However, this is a relatively slow-processing technology in comparison with the potential of new-generation imaging systems.

The AUTOVISION project, aims to produce, over the course of three years,  CMOS graphene quantum dot image sensors in prototype sensor systems, that will be ready for uptake in the automotive sector. Across the duration of the project, the developing image sensor is expected to take huge leaps in sensitivity, operation speed and pixel size.

 CMOS technology has enabled compact and low cost micro-electronic circuits and imaging systems, but diversification in applications other than microcircuits and visible light cameras has made limited progress. This is due to the difficulty of combining CMOS with other semiconductors apart from silicon.

Recently, monolithic integration of a CMOS integrated circuit with graphene has been made possible, enabling high-resolution image sensing that detects UV, visible, infrared and even terahertz frequencies.

The sensor’s ability to see in the infrared — effectively night vision — means that same graphene CMOS sensors could be used as part of a self-driving car’s automatic brake system, specifically in bad weather. This collision avoidance system is set to be a crucial application for graphene, and one that will help the wider uptake of autonomous driving technology, according to the Graphene Flagship project description.

IMPROVING HEALTH

 Biomedical applications are another big area for graphene. Graphene Flagship spin-out INBRAIN Neuroelectronics is developing intelligent graphene-based neural implants for personalized therapies in brain disorders.  It was established in 2019 by the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and ICREA, Spain, with a mission to decode brain signals and devise medical solutions for patients with epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological problems. More than 35% of the population is afflicted with brain disorders. The cost of treatment is about €800 billion  a year in Europe. The cost of drugs is about 20% of the price tag, with side effects adding additional costs.

Bioengineering solutions are an alternative means of therapy. Existing brain interfaces are based on metals such as platinum and iridium, which impose significant restrictions in terms of miniaturization and signal resolution. INBRAIN is developing a less-invasive smart neural system, driven by artificial intelligence and Big Data, that will be able to read and modulate brain activity, detect therapy-specific biomarkers and trigger adaptive responses in the form of personalized neurological therapies. Bioelectrical implants made from graphene ̶ which is light, biocompatible, flexible and extremely conductive ̶  can be used in much smaller devices that are safer to implant and can be programmed, upgraded and recharged wirelessly, according to the company’s website.

Demand for graphene in other biomedical applications such as biosensors that measure glucose, cholesterol and hemoglobin levels in the blood, is driving market growth, according to a report by BlueWeave Consulting

SPEARHEADING THE FUTURE OF SOLAR ENERGY

Graphene Flagship’s GRAPES project aims to design and fabricate a new type of solar cell with graphene and related materials. Thanks to new thin-film technology, perovskites could bring increased efficiency at a lower cost to solar panel manufacturing. But the technology needs to get out of the laboratory before industry can benefit. Part of the problem with perovskites is their high instability and low efficiency on a large scale.

To address the limitations of perovskite cells, Graphene Flagship partners Greatcell SolarBeDimensional and Siemens are introducing graphene and related materials  based layered technology to boost the performance and stability of perovskite cells to a new record level.  

The project plans to identify two suitable locations for fully-fledged perovskite plant test beds to take place, inform the wider industry on the true potential of this layered material application and to take graphene-enabled perovskite technologies out of the laboratory and into industry. The hope is that by improving the stability and efficiency of perovskite technologies the project will play an essential role in improving Europe’s uptake of solar energy projects.

FILTERING TOXINS FROM WATER

Working alongside industrial partners, Icon LifesaverMedica SpA and Polymem S.A — European industry leaders in the water purification sector — the Graphene Flagship GRAPHIL project focuses on the removal of toxins and contaminants that are increasingly present in European water sources.

With an estimated date for commercialization in 2023, the project aims to produce a compact filter that can be connected directly onto a household sink or used as a portable water purifying device, to ensure all households have access to safe drinking water.

Due to the unique properties of graphene, the material favors the absorption of organic molecules. Its properties also allow the material to bind ions and metals, thus reducing the number of inorganic contaminants in water and unlike typical reverse osmosis, granular activated carbon and microfiltration train systems, the graphene system will provide a much simpler set up for users.

Meanwhile, in April, University of Buffalo researchers in New York announced they have developed a novel 3D printed water-purifying graphene aerogel that could be scaled for use at large wastewater treatment plants. Composed of a styrofoam-like aerogel, latticed graphene and two bio-inspired polymers, they claim the novel material is capable of removing dyes, metals and organic solvents from drinking water with 100% efficiency. Unlike similar nanosheets, the scientists say their design is reusable, doesn’t leave residue and can be 3D printed into larger sizes, allowing it to be commercialized it for industrial-scale deployment.

SPEEDING THE EVOLUTION OF 5G AND THE INTERNET OF THINGS

It is no surprise that the Graphene Flagship project has established a regular presence at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.  Over the last 25 years, data traffic has increased exponentially. While optical fibre amplifiers have previously been adequate for data sharing, new technologies are required to meet the growing bandwidth and power requirements of 5G. As part of its expanding spearhead P\project program, the Graphene Flagship launched an initiative to develop graphene-based photonics for use in 5G networks and it’s already produced tangible results for industry.

Graphene additionally looks set to replace existing touchscreen technology. Since it is considerably cheaper than the materials used in most modern smartphones and is much more agile. It is used on a commercial scale in touchscreens for smartphones, tablet, desktop computers, and televisions, liquid crystal displays (LCD), and organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs).

That’s not all. Graphene could usher in entirely new types of connected objects. Apple, for instance, has been awarded several patents for designs that incorporate graphene, including graphene solar panels printed inside the touch screen to allow constant recharging; an entire smartphone that can be folded in half; a heat dissipater that would prevent smartphones from overheating; and a graphene-based battery system for smartwatches that conducts heat from the wrist to keep the gadget charged. Samsung alone has applied for at least 405 graphene-related patents around the world, according to press reports.

In April, Brisbane, Australia-based Graphene Manufacturing Group ,which recently listed on the TSX Venture Exchange in Canada, said it will manufacture battery prototypes for watches, phones, laptops, electric vehicles and grid storage under a research agreement with scientists from the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. Testing showed rechargeable graphene aluminium ion batteries had a battery life of up to three times that of current leading lithium-ion batteries, and higher power density meant they charged up to 70 times faster, according to a blog post on the university’s web site. The batteries are rechargeable for a larger number of cycles without deteriorating performance and are easier to recycle, reducing potential for harmful metals to leak into the environment.

The aluminum ion battery with graphene electrodes could transform the existing rechargeable battery market, dominated by lithium-ion. “Lithium-ion batteries demand the extraction of rare earth materials using large amounts of water and are processed with chemicals that can potentially harm the environment,” UniQuest CEO Dean Mos said in the blog posting. “This project has real potential to provide the market with a more environmentally friendly and efficient alternative.”

UP IN THE AIR

Lightweight, high-performance graphene composites are already used in the manufacture of aircraft, fighter jets and racecars. Now, graphene- based materials are being tested for other uses by the aviation industry.

If ice accumulates on the wings, propellers or other surfaces of an aircraft, control can be dangerously inhibited. Thermoelectric ice protection systems prevent this from happening, using an ultra-thin conductive coating layer to generate heat when current is applied. Graphene Flagship’s GICE project is out to prove that existing technology for this application can be  improved by graphene.

The project’s premise is that graphene is an ideal material to keep aircraft parts ice free, without affecting aerodynamic properties. Advantages of graphene include flexibility of integration into complex 3D structures, low weight, reduced thermo-mechanical stress during heating cycles, higher efficiency with lower power consumption, no oxidation and chemical inertness and facile integrability into carbon fiber reinforced polymers, thermoplastics, or glass fiber reinforced polymers, according to the project’s description. Scientists in this application believe graphene in this application will also enable precise control of heat generation to ensure the ice protection system is always at its optimum performance. Based on the work performed by various partners of the Graphene Flagship during earlier research phases, graphene-based ice protection systems are already in development, albeit at a low technology readiness level.The goal of the project is to advance these technologies to higher maturity by developing three technology demonstrators for specific use cases needed by key industrial partners, including Airbus, Europe’s largest aerospace company, and Sonaca, a tier-one supplier of components for Airbus.

Another Graphene Flagship project aims to improve air filter maintenance on airplanes in order to keep dust from reaching the internal workings of  engines. The Graphene Flagship’s AEROGrAFT  project, is aiming to produce heatable aero-graphene foams, to reduce the cleaning time of aero-material filters in the aerospace industry, with an eye to saving businesses huge sums of maintenance costs and downtime. The project, which involves Naturality Research & Development, Spain and Lufthansa TechnikPhi-Stone, and Sixonia Tech in Germany, is developing prototype self-cleaning air filters that use aero-graphene foam.

Using graphene’s homogenous heat distribution properties, the graphene-enabled foam aims to ensure even heat throughout the air filter, to elicit a consistent cleaning across all air filter surfaces. What’s more, the self-cleaning air filters can use the same graphene foam repeatedly, for recurrent cleaning cycles, without losing stability.Not only will the self-cleaning filter mean less servicing, but also quicker cleaning. The team believes it will have developed a prototype filter that will take less than 30 minutes to clean within 18-months. By the end of the project in 2023, the project aims to get the timing  below the ten-minute mark. The foam’s volume manufacturability will be improved over the project duration, with the end goal of producing foams to volumes of over 200cm3

OVERCOMING HURDLES

Hjelt says he expects applications in the materials sector such as composites, inks and coatings to be industrialized in the next five years. Graphene’s use in batteries and solar cells, and in optoelectronics such as optical switches and modulators for 5G networks, construction materials with improved properties, membranes for water purification, electrodes for supercapacitors, flexible solar cells, sensors for the Internet of Things and autonomous driving are also expected to benefit from graphene and realizetheir market potential in anywhere from five to 15 years.

While researchers and entrepreneurs are making good progress “we have not yet completely solved mass production at scale,” he says. Another challenge is quality control. “There are many graphene producers but in many cases what they are selling is not graphene, says Hjelt. “You have to know who you are buying it from, and you have to know what you are buying.”  And, he says, the lack of established value chains also poses problems. “If you are buying a component and something goes wrong there is often only one producer. This will be solved but we are not yet there.”

Despite these hurdles, Hjelt says “I am optimistic that graphene will soon start disrupting industries, and with growing demand the challenges will be solved.”

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.