Most people have never even heard of it, but there’s a material out there that can be applied to some surfaces to make them stronger than steel yet lightweight. It’s impermeable but flexible. And this naturally occurring, honeycomb-structured substance is being churned out en masse in Spain, of all places, where it is used to make prototype gadgets like bendable cellphone screens and a new generation of batteries that can store four times the charge in a fraction of the time.
What the hell is this stuff?
Graphene. Dubbed the strongest, thinnest material known today, you can consider this one-atom-thick layer of graphite the futuristic equivalent of Dr. Seuss’ thneed: “a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need.” The global market for this stuff is expected to swell to $390 million in the next 10 years, up from $20 million in 2014, according to IDTechEx, a Cambridge, U.K.-based technology consulting firm. But analysts admit that it’s hard to know exactly how much business graphene will ultimately generate because its production is still in the early days — which is why some market researchers have forecast much less growth, while others expect the industry to expand to more than $1 billion.
What is clear, however, is that Spain is staking an early claim in this nascent market. Already, the country has produced at least four companies working on everything from a stronger yet lighter and more flexible form of concrete to battery cells set to be manufactured later this year for electric cars. These nanotech startups were among the first to seek an early market advantage, overcoming strong economic headwind due to the country’s recession, stagnant demand, falling prices and a credit drought. In addition, investment in research and development dropped by 10 percent in Spain between 2010 and 2013. And even with a full economic recovery still years away, these companies are planning to expand capacity to meet growing global demand.
Even more competitors may emerge from Spain as Europe, which has led through graphene’s developmental phase, is doubling up on its support with a billion-euro funding program called the Graphene Flagship. It’s the EU’s biggest research initiative ever, and it aims to take graphene from academic labs to the hands of consumers — in just 10 years. “Some companies will be successful and some will go belly up, but Europe wants to stay ahead, not just in science but in commercial deployment,” says Andrea Ferrari, the chairman of Graphene Flagship’s executive board, who’s also a professor of nanotechnology and director of the Cambridge University Graphene Centre.
First isolated in a lab in 2003, graphene — which looks like a microscopic mesh — can be extracted from any carbon-based material, including coal, petroleum and even waste. It conducts electricity as well as copper, and it is unrivaled when it comes to transferring heat. But it wasn’t until 2010 that techniques were developed to envision the material’s market potential.
It was also around that time when Jesús de la Fuente, a former director of the consultancy PwC, sought private investment for his San Sebastián venture, Graphenea, which produces material used in prototypes of touch-screen electronics, solar cells and batteries. He found support to develop the coastal city’s niche graphene market through research grants, a private nanotechnology firm, small investors and the Spanish oil company Repsol; his most well-known clients include Nokia, Intel and BASF, among more than 300 others. “The race is only getting started,” says de la Fuente, Graphenea’s chief executive. “We don’t know where this is heading, but Spain is positioning itself to have an advantage.”
Yet single-layered graphene, the material’s most refined form, is still experimental and expensive. The hope is that it will end up being used in areas such as data storage, transistors, the defense industry, water filtration, optical and medical equipment and even oil drilling. But many of these applications could take years before they are fully tested, and even longer before the entire industrial production chain is updated to roll out products that use the wonder material.
Spain’s success will depend in large part on how other markets develop graphene in tandem with their own technologies. Europe and the U.S., for example, are expected to focus on making the kind of graphene that will be required for more demanding applications, such as aeronautics, defense, and medical equipment, while China, still home to the world’s manufacturing hub, is likely to increasingly release consumer products that use the special material.
Meanwhile, the multilayered, less refined and cheaper (but also less profitable) form of graphene is already being sold by the ton and used in products that don’t need the ultrathin version to significantly improve their quality — think certain construction materials, specialized apparel like bicycle helmets and even paint.
That’s right. Graphenano’s graphene (try saying that five times fast) is mixed with slaked lime to produce whitewash on steroids that includes only natural materials. It’s being exported to Germany and China, and used locally in places like Cádiz Cathedral and Seville’s Museum of Fine Arts. Next up for the Alicante-based company? Producing paint that can block Wi-Fi and cellphone signals for, say, schools or security installations at embassies and police stations. “We are anticipating an avalanche of demand,” says José Antonio Martínez, vice chairman of Graphenano.
By Andrés Cala