From graphite to graphene – the power of two industries

While commercially available graphene can be made from the bottom-up via chemical vapor deposition (CVD) — which is commonly referred to as CVD graphene — most of the graphene available on the market is created by breaking down graphite into graphene.

These processes make up most of the few-layer, multi-layer, and graphene nanoplatelets on the market today, and the adoption of graphene we have seen so far wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for an already established graphite industry.

While there a number of different ways in which graphene can be created from graphite, one thing that is clear, is that the large-scale production of graphene is going to rely heavily on the graphite industry unless other large-scale (and commercially viable) production methods are found.

Even though the graphene industry currently needs the graphite industry, the graphene industry presents a great opportunity to the graphite industry as well.

Aside from graphite being used in products directly, the potential raw material sales from graphite to graphene manufacturers could be huge, especially if graphene gets widely adopted across many end-user markets.

So, it’s in the best interest of both industries to work well together and find synergistic relationships that benefit both industries.

I recently caught up with Dan Kenny, the Marketing & Product Manager at Asbury Carbons, to see how the graphite and graphene industry are working together to make this happen, and what can be done in the future to better facilitate this relationship (and the supply chain) as graphene gets adopted in more commercial products.

From Dan’s comments, the relationship between the US graphite and graphene industry is already good, as a relationship has been built up over the last few years through collaborative approaches.

A close working relationship is key to any collaboration. As graphene expands into new markets, scaling up production and avoiding any issues within the supply chain could be brought about by a close graphite-graphene industry relationship.

Dan suggested that while it’s the graphene industry’s part to ensure that they have credibility in terms of their ability to produce graphene and enhance the performance of an application, the role of the graphite industry is to “learn the needs, understand the pain points, and educate ourselves on how best to serve the graphene industry, while providing access to our technical resources to help engineer solutions”.

Moving forward

We’re not yet at the point where demands are being made for large volumes of graphene.

While many companies can produce large amounts of graphene, doing so on a regular basis for consumer products, without compromising on quality, is going to be key if we are to see a global adoption of graphene in different products.

Dan mentioned that many of the successful graphene companies in existence today have managed to find unique solutions to real problems, particularly among the manufacturing industries (such as coatings and thermoset composites).

Going forward, some of these solutions are going to need five metric tons a year of raw graphite, whereas others may only need five thousand, and the graphite industry will need to ensure that it can support the graphene industry based on the needs of each application.

As the industry matures, ensuring that there is a robust supply chain—from raw material to end product—is going to be key to maintaining confidence in graphene-based products.

Naturally, there are some things that can cause potential supply chain issues, and this has been demonstrated throughout 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic.

Pandemics and natural disasters, alongside political destabilization in some regions, are not things that can often be predicted and can play havoc with the supply chain.

There are also economic issues surrounding raw graphite suppliers that could be an issue at any point in time.

All these potential supply chain issues are something that will need to be planned for, and mitigated if possible, because if end-users cannot get hold of graphene, they will turn to other materials, and the chance to use graphene may be lost.

One of the pieces of advice that Dan gave (from the perspective of the graphite industry), is that the graphene industry should be careful that they don’t get stuck in a corner when sourcing raw materials.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, Dan suggested that the graphene producers should work with a graphite supplier that sources raw graphite from multiple places around the world (to avoid localized supply chain issues as mentioned above), and one that can scale to meet the requirements of future graphene products.

The first one is often overlooked but it key to ensuring that supply chain issues in localized regions (at any given time) do not affect the supply of graphene to end-users.

It’s a contingency plan for if anything goes wrong, and if 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that these issues can happen at a moment’s notice, so both the graphite and graphene industries need to be aware and prepared.

The graphite-graphene industry relationship is already an important one.

As we start to see a greater adoption of graphene, this relationship and collaborative effort is going to become even more important and could be the difference between graphene being used across many markets Vs being used in a few specific application areas.

As these situations develop, associations such as NGA2D and the Graphene Flagship will also have to play a key role to help facilitate commercialization efforts, educate end-users, and ensure that graphite suppliers are kept up to date with the latest issues.

So, it’s a relationship that we will all likely play a role in going forward if graphene is to reach its full potential, but the foundations are already in place for moving forward thanks to the efforts which have been made in both industries.