LIAM CRITCHLEY: Is Graphene going to be the invisible additive?

Over the years, scientists, journalists and practically anyone interested in graphene has said that we are going to see graphene in this, graphene in that, graphene here, and graphene there.

But what if we won’t actually see graphene being used?

Rather, it could be there in the future, and present in many of our everyday products without us knowing (like it is today).

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure to speak with thought leaders in the graphene space from different sectors, including in industry, academia, and independent professionals.

One of the key points about the future of graphene that has been mentioned during these talks by almost everyone I’ve spoken to is, that we are likely to see graphene being used in many different products, spanning many different industrial sectors and end-use markets, but we as the consumer are unlikely to know it is there.

Sure, there are going to be companies who capitalize on the fact they are using graphene for marketing purposes.

They may even give their graphene parts trademarked names to stand out. But these are likely to fall into the minority in the future. There are also going to be some applications like electronics that will require the surface properties of graphene alone, and not graphene integrated into other materials.

However, these are again likely to be the minority scenarios for graphene (at least for a good number of years until graphene takes off in electronics).

What’s likely to happen is that graphene is going to go the way that many other materials do, and that is as an additive that will enhance performance of a number of composite materials and hybrid systems, but the product itself will not stand out to the average consumer as being ‘graphene-enhanced’.

While many (unfortunately) over-hypes graphene as being the materials to revolutionize x,y, and z, shifting the focus and letting everyone know that graphene is going to be the additive of the future that will improve your product, rather than a miracle material, could do wonders for the graphene industry.

Let’s face it, those in the nanotechnology sector have seen the hype train before, where the train never reaches the station prophesized, and none of us want graphene to go that way.

If people started actually informing material manufacturers, consumer product innovators, and any industry that uses advanced materials (such as the aerospace industry), that you can use a tiny amount of graphene and reap performance, light-weighting, environmental and/or cost benefits, you can guarantee that many wouldn’t turn it down if they were shown how to effectively use graphene.

Many people outside of the industry still believe the hype of graphene, and if you have a graphene product, that it is going to be obvious that there is graphene in it.

What we’re actually going to be looking at, is a very similar-looking product with enhanced properties—that will not be obvious by simply looking at it.

These areas, from concrete and cement, to plastic composites, to specialized coatings and formulations, are going to become large markets for graphene and many shouldn’t be disappointed that graphene will be ‘seen as an additive’.

In fact, it’s likely to not be seen at all, and that will be the brilliance of graphene, just like many of the additives we have today that perform essential functions in our everyday products.

You only need to look at some of the graphene-enhanced products emerging today, like the SpaceMat, where you wouldn’t know that graphene is in there, yet it performs an essential function in holding the rubber mat together.

The graphene-enhanced running shoes from Inov-8 are also another good example of this, where you wouldn’t know the graphene is there, but such a small amount of it significantly enhances the durability of the shoes but retains great grip performance.

Yet, these are just a couple of the many consumer products that are already on the market which use graphene, never mind the products which will be released in the future.

So, like many of the modern-day additives, such as plasticizers in plastics, silicones in paints, or carrageenan in foodstuffs, graphene is likely to become an ever-important and ever-present additive that we never see; and it could well be one of the most important and widely implemented ‘invisible additives’ that we see for some time.