The following excerpt was written by Simon Rees of Rees Media and published in Benchmark Mineral Intelligence’s Q4 magazine.
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At the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris a wondrous new metal wowed the crowds: aluminium. The enthusiasm surrounding it belied the decades of research taken to reach that point, with the big breakthrough occurring when Henri-Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville started producing the material on a commercial scale.
However, aluminium proved phenomenally expensive; France’s Emperor Napoleon III is said to have honoured special dinner guests by providing them with aluminium cutlery. Everyone else had to make do with gold or silver.
The price only fell with the development of the Hall-Heroult process and cheaper energy later in the century. Aluminium had been struggling to win market share until that point. “There is nothing harder than to make people use a new metal,” Sainte-Claire Deville once rued.
Some of aluminium’s early difficulties might be familiar for those working with graphene. Many thousands of hours have been spent studying the material over the past decade, with an avalanche of related patents testimony to this.
There is also debate about how scale-up production, make the material affordable and find the right first-entry markets – similar conundrums aluminium faced all those years ago.
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Graphene’s recent history only stretches back to 2004 when Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov famously used Scotch tape to lift graphite from a sample. They then repeatedly folded and unfolded the tape to isolate the graphene.
It comprises just one element, carbon, and has superb strength; it is more than 200 times stronger than steel by weight. Graphene is transparent, with a hexagonal, honeycomb-like formation at a layer just one atom thick.
It is also light-weight, stretchable and flexible. In addition, it is a semimetal and can take on magnetic qualities. It impermeable and is the best thermal and electrical conductor yet known. Cambridge University and others have been working on copper wiring that utilises graphene.
“That’s a possible early-stage market,” Tata Steel principal scientist Siva Bohn told Benchmark Mineral Intelligence (Benchmark). However, there is little room for impurities. “When you have impurities, even just 5%, then conductivity goes down the drain.”…