One of the questions that the UK Parliament graphene enquiry should perhaps consider is “Why are the applications of graphene so unimaginative?” Quite aside from the infamous but hardly revolutionary graphene lightbulb invented by, well, someone somewhere around Manchester, the only other application seems to be composite materials.
Reading the interim results this week from AIM listed graphene companies Haydale and Applied Graphene Materials I wondered whether I had somehow managed to travel back in time to 2006. This was a time when companies that had previously been planning to make hundreds of tonnes of carbon nanotubes were coming to the conclusion that the only thing that they could do with the things, if they could make them at all, was dump them into composites.
Why composites? The theory with nanotubes was simply because everybody wants stuff lighter and stronger. Lighter cars and aircraft save fuel, so therefore there will be a huge market for carbon nanotube composites. Baseball bats, golf clubs, golf balls, pool cues, bullet proof vests, tanks, running shoes, in fact anything that anybody could imagine that anybody would want to be higher and stringer. Space elevator cables, oh yeah!
The reality was that despite the wonderful nanoscale properties of nanotubes dispersing them evenly in a composite was often tricky and the loading (the % of nanotubes) required to make a compelling improvement in the materials properties often also made it phenomenally expensive.
Even companies whose products were supposed to be disrupted by nanotubes tried making them, but after ten years of nanotubes Japan’s Toray Industries was supplying carbon fibre composites to Boeing for the 787 and 777X aircraft, not nanotubes.
I’m not claiming that every graphene related business should be attempting to mine asteroids or provide cheap free water for the undeveloped parts of the world, that’s’ my job, but I wish they’d show a bit more imagination.
Twenty-five years after their discovery (or more accurately forty years since Morinobu Endo first reported them) and after hundreds of millions of dollars, carbon nanotubes have failed to make a significant dent in the composites market. Most of the companies trying either gave up or went bust trying top persuade global industry to give a fig about another technology without a market.
One of the issues the UK enquiry should understand is that innovation is a risky business. However, basing businesses on a tried and tested model that has repeatedly failed, such as dumping fancy new stuff into composites, is a risk too far.