Graphene is certainly the “wonder material” of the moment, surpassing the former bearer of that title—carbon nanotubes. To support this research, funding mechanisms around the world are cranking up to full throttle. Some large investments in the UK to secure its position as a “graphene hub” and the €1 billion the EU has poured into graphene research are just the most recent examples of this.
Presumably all this research and all this funding is intended—eventually—to lead to some commercial applications. Things appear to be moving in the right direction with some significant advances in the mass production of graphene (liquid phase, thermal exfoliation, and chemical vapor deposition, to name a few).
Then again, you can mass-produce sealing wax but there’s not a whole lot of demand for the material anymore. To see what cheap production of a nanomaterial gets you, just take a look at the huge capacity glut for multi-walled carbon nanotubes that have left producers begging for applications.
Even the so-called “patent surge” in graphene doesn’t promise much more than the old “patented nanomaterial and a prayer” sensibility that governed investment in the early 2000s.
There remains a very real possibility at this stage that graphene funding will not produce new economic development for some regions any more than investments in carbon nanotubes did.
Nonetheless there are real applications for which graphene could be used today. Those applications may not be—at least immediately—in the electronics industry, desperate though it is to keep Moore’s Law alive for another generation, but in more mundane areas such as for membranes for natural gas processing or water purification.
With this landscape as the backdrop, the National Science Foundation (NSF) wanted to highlight Jessup, Md.-based Vorbeck Materials, which just received a grant from the NSF to bring its graphene-based technology to market.
According to the NSF press release, the company claims to be “one of the first (if not the first) graphene products to go to market.” In 2009, Vorbeck introduced its Vor-ink graphene-based conductive ink for electronics at the Printed Electronics Europe 2009 tradeshow.
I am still not sure whether the company is selling their products to anyone, or whether their prototypes are ready to be sold to someone. In any case, graphene-enabled conductive inks certainly makes sense as an early application since the graphene for these types of inks can currently be produced on the ton scale.
Wisely, the company is using these conductive inks to produce its own electronic textile products, as opposed to simply producing the ink. The video below demonstrates a sheet of Vor-ink-prepared fabric put through a regular washing machine load (with detergent!) and drying cycle. (No nano-fiber-based wrinkle-resistance, however.)
The weaving together of nanotech and electronic textiles has, like carbon nanotubes, a relatively long and somewhat checkered past with much hope and high expectations but few rousing success stories. We'll see how this commercial avenue pans out for the young Vorbeck Materials. In the meantime, it is encouraging to see the first sprouts of commercial possibility emerging from the rocky soil of this emerging technology landscape.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.