Is it me, or is the pace of scientific research and technological advancement occurring at an ever increasing rate? Although I am not a science historian, I think if you look at previous technological revolutions, you usually find an initial discovery or set of discoveries that can take decades or centuries to find their way into applications and common usage (See my earlier post about the TV series “Connections”). Now the geometric nature of Moore’s Law seems to have taken over the entire (nano)technology landscape.
It seems like only a few years ago that no one but a few insiders had heard of graphene, the single layer carbon sheet with interesting electrical, mechanical, and thermal properties. Now, a recent article in Nature Nanotechnology (Vol. 4, pp. 612-514) entitled "Selling graphene by the ton" describes the commoditization of this unique material. The starting material, graphite, is readily and cheaply available, and the processing to extract the graphene platelets is relatively simple and inexpensive. Associate Editor Michael Segal relates that three U.S. start-up companies (Vorbeck Materials, Angstron Materials, and XG Sciences) are already producing more than 15 tons/year for use in composite materials and electrodes. It is expected that this production will exceed 200 tons in a few years. Although this seems like a lot to you and me, apparently this is still small potatoes to the chemical industry giants (Dow, 3M, BASF and DuPont) who have reservations about the economic benefits. The short article also describes the dispute between the research and industry communities over the definition of graphene, whether it constitutes only a single carbon sheet or a multilayer.
Of course, once a technology becomes a business it has to have its own trade press. Okay, Graphene Times is not really a newspaper or magazine, but rather a website created by Mike Sprinkle, a Georgia Tech physics grad student in Walt de Heer’s lab. This website compiles (similar to Google Reader) the continuing accumulation of research papers and other news about graphene. If you want to learn about the latest findings hot off the peer-reviewed press or see where commercialization of this novel material is heading, this is a good place to start.