Special Report: The World's Next Rare-Earth Metal

Have you heard of Moore's law of electronics?

It's an observation that over the life span of computers, the number of transistors in dense circuits about doubles every two years.

mooreslawchart

These transistors are usually made out of silicon and sometimes copper. These materials can get pretty compact and make room for the number of transistors to double fairly steadily as the chart shows.

However, there's only so much copper, and silicon can shrink and still function. Moore's law is slowing as time goes on.

Future transistors will need to be made of something else that can handle the strain of electricity and heat but on a much smaller scale.

Luckily, just such a material is in development right now.

Enter: Graphene

Graphene is a single-layer sheet of carbon atoms. Its multilayered version is called graphite. You may remember this material from its use in pencils, where it's ideal due to its brittle nature and the visible trace it leaves behind.

However, a single layer of graphene is very strong. It is, by researchers' estimations, about 200 times stronger than steel and as much as 100 times stronger than diamonds. Since diamonds are also carbon, graphene is just a more stable atomic formation of the element.

In fact, graphene has acquired the reputation of being a "miracle material."

The single-layer aspect of graphene made it the world's first two-dimensional substance, though it's not the only one anymore. Every single one of its atoms is exposed, which gives it some interesting properties.

First, it's both thermally and electrically conductive. Its atomic structure makes the movement of electrons very quick and very fluid. Pure graphene is actually 1,000 times more conductive than copper — an impressive feat if you think of all the electronics that rely on copper as a highly conductive material.

This conductive structure also means that there is little resistance when electricity is run through it. Because of this, electricity run through graphene produces much less heat than conventional wires and heat barriers.

Friction is why your charger, or the device it's charging, feels hot to the touch after being plugged in for a while. Graphene would keep this kind of heat from building to a destructive level.

Next, the atomic structure of a layer of graphene looks something like this:

grapheneatomiclevel

This lattice structure makes graphene a viable net for all sorts of things.

The most common example of graphene's strength is the visual of a cat in a hammock: One square meter of graphene could support a 4-kilogram cat but would only weigh about as much as one of the cat's whiskers.

As I stated above, a single layer of graphene is about 200 times stronger than steel by weight. Because it's only one layer, any impact it takes on is distributed across the whole surface, meaning it has the capacity to stop large physical projectiles.

And on a much smaller scale, the net is equally as impenetrable.

Graphene membranes have been proven to block the passage of many gases, including helium — the most difficult gas to block.

Can you imagine all the incredible uses the world could have for such a versatile material? Let me give you just a few examples.

Graphene Everywhere

Let's start from the membrane stage: What could a single layer of graphene do?

As such a great barrier, a coating of graphene on food or medicine packages could increase their life spans by quite a lot.

A membrane of graphene could also be applied to the growing idea of carbon capture. With the spread of clean energy and emissions reduction globally, the idea of capturing some of those emissions is tempting but costly. Graphene could make it possible on a large scale.

What's more, graphene could assist in using those emissions for more energy. Right now, fuel cells require methane to harvest energy by splitting hydrogen into protons and electrons. The best membranes today let some of that hydrogen through, which wastes precious energy.

Graphene would not have this problem. And, as a much lighter substance, it could reduce the size and cost of fuel cells once brought to scale.

Graphene membranes could even be made to collect hydrogen for energy right from the air we breathe every day. While its use around fossil fuel plants would be the most productive, there are about 2 trillion tonnes of hydrogen elsewhere just waiting to be used.

The netlike structure of graphene could also be used to desalinate or just filter water. It's already used in paints in order to waterproof wood, metal, and stone in boats and homes.

The larger-scale version of graphene has quite a few uses as well.

In an interesting experiment, it was found that graphene can absorb about 2.3 times the energy per kilogram as Kevlar — the material that makes up ballistic armor. You see, graphene is flat but flexible and distributes any impact across its surface.

The experiment concluded that it would only take a layer of graphene about 500 nanometers thick — about one-hundredth the width of a human hair — to stop a bullet completely.

The Rice University scientist who did this experiment, Jae-Hwang Lee, estimates that graphene ballistic armor could be commercially viable within the next decade.

Already, graphene is used to make sports equipment stronger, lighter, and more flexible. The same principles have the potential to be used in making stronger, lighter aircraft or even cars.

And, of course, you can't overlook graphene's uses in electronics.

grapheneelectronics

Understand, the thinness of a graphene sheet means it's mostly transparent. This, in addition to its strength and flexibility, makes it a candidate for the future of flexible and wearable device screens.

Already, graphene nanotubes are used to make more efficient computer transistors. Not only does the material transmit electrical charges at a rate that's hundreds of times faster than copper, but it also moves heat along quickly, too.

This can be good to keep electronics from overheating. However, this aspect too has a larger-scale version.

We already mentioned the netlike structure of graphene itself.

Tongji University is applying the structure of graphene into cleaning wastewater. A "shield” made of graphene oxide apparently helps kick resistant bacteria to the curb. These “shields” could be used in wastewater treatment plants to also attack free-floating antibiotic-resistant genes that reside in them.

Graphene-wrapped spheres kill harmful bacteria in treatment plants, while being large enough to be filtered out and kept from human consumption.

Boston College researchers believe that graphene can be a tool to fight the pandemic. Graphene can battle the virus in more ways than one — graphene can aid in sensing harmful gases, but it can also aid in identifying deadly strains of bacteria. This happens through a sheet of graphene tracking electronic signals inherent in biological structures.

Before the pandemic even started, graphene was used at the University of Pennsylvania to amplify diagnostic devices' sensitivity. This was in 2018 when the devices were used in monitoring HIV. 

We already mentioned graphene's benefit in sportswear, but graphene's uses can also be applied to medical wear, from masks to gowns for medical personnel. LIGC Application recently developed a graphene filtration system that you can reuse, called the "Guardian G-Volt." It's said to be 99% effective against particles over 0.3 micrometers and 80% effective against anything smaller. 

The mask is actually electronic and essentially zaps away particles trapped in the graphene filter.

Graphene Meets Lithium

One of the major potential uses for graphene is in lithium batteries.

Lithium batteries currently use graphite anodes, which are not the most efficient. And silicon, a more efficient option, is known to expand when introduced to lithium, which makes for a possibly explosive battery design.

However, graphene can also be grown directly onto silicon layers, which allows for more energy-dense silicon to replace the graphite anodes. Lithium metal anodes have a capacity 10 times higher than traditional graphite-lithium ion batteries. 

Graphene enables this by allowing the silicon to expand, but it also induces a sliding effect across adjacent layers of graphene. In other words, rather than expanding and exploding, the silicon would expand and redistribute itself safely within the confines of the battery, held securely by a graphene net.

Thankfully, Rice University developed an adhesive into a silicon oxide film that replaces the hiccups lithium metal batteries tend to face. Led by professor James Tour, the protective silicon oxide layer demonstrated the film soaking up and releasing lithium without the short-circuiting and exploding.

From there, the improved battery design could grow from small devices to larger electric vehicles.

What Rice University is whipping up in terms of electric cars is a supercapacitor film made with two layers of graphene sandwiching an electrolyte layer. This supercapacitor is intended to cut car charging times down from a couple of hours to a couple of minutes. They’re also eco-friendly since the supercapacitor’s film is one atom thick.

Graphene Meets Boron

Another one of our favorite commodities today, the miracle mineral boron, has been found to have some beneficial relationships with graphene.

Upon adding boron to graphene layers, or “doping” the graphene with boron, scientists at Rice University found that they'd created a material able to sense various gases at much lower concentrations than even the best gas sensors in use today.

This included nitrogen oxides at parts per billion and ammonia at parts per million.

Both of these could be useful in industrial capacities. The detection of dangerous gases could be lifesaving in jobs where leaks are common.

And, of course, a sensor that can both sense and capture the most common emissions gases would be in high demand. As countries plan to cut their emissions as much as possible while still increasing energy capacity, a material that captures and maybe uses those gases for extra energy is the perfect solution.

Boron-doped graphene could also be added to lithium batteries to regulate heat levels.

What's more, graphene's high conductivity is being exploited to make high-density micro-supercapacitors. These have been found to hold around 10 times as much energy when boron is added to the mix.

Now, that's quite a long list of uses for a single material. And the prospects only get more unlikely from there — imagine a flexible device that could be sewn into clothes or integrated right into human skin.

So why isn't this already the most popular commodity out there?

Supply Lines

Graphene isn't like our usual commodities. No one country has the most reserves; no company can dig a mine or a well and find a surefire supply of graphene within the ground.

The sheets of graphene have to be produced bit by bit. And this has been historically difficult.

graphenesmall

The first person to do it, Sir Andre Geim at the University of Manchester, pulled single layers of graphene off larger pieces of graphite — found in simple school pencils — with Scotch tape.

And because of its odd atomic structure, this is still one of the few ways to get high-quality graphene. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, this is very time-consuming and only makes a few small flakes of graphene at a time.

The other major way to produce graphene sheets is by “growing” it on copper plates through a method called chemical vapor deposition.

This entails heating copper in a furnace, adding carbonized gas to the heated area, and allowing the gas to react with the copper plates. This lets the then-separated carbon atoms settle on the copper in sheets.

However, this method has its issues too. The main problem here is that the surface of the copper isn't always perfect and any imperfections leave holes in the graphene sheets.

One Caltech researcher released a study on a possible solution to this issue in March 2015. Dr. David Boyd's new method requires about half the heat of the current deposition process and can somewhat smooth the surface of the copper.

You see, Boyd's method introduces nitrogen to the carbonized gas mix. This reacts with the copper to smooth it over, which makes for a cleaner surface on which the graphene can settle.

This makes the graphene a higher quality, which means it can more easily transfer electricity and heat.

The quality of the graphene is key on the market. Because supply is only still in development, what is available must be appropriate for the material's end use.

And speaking of the market...

What Does the Market Look Like?

Because large-scale mass production still hasn't quite begun on this material, the market is a bit limited. However, that leaves a lot of room open for investors to get in before it reaches commercialization.

graph 343                                                                                             Source: Grand View Research

The market was worth $78.7 million in 2019 and, according to Grand View Research, is expected to rise drastically to $1.08 billion by 2027.

North America currently has the bulk of market share, but the Asia-Pacific area is expected to have the quickest growth in adoption of graphene uses in coming years. North America and Europe are also expected to have above-market average growth.

The biggest driver of all this growth is expected to be the push for cleaner, more efficient energy sources and the global reduction of emissions in the air.

Demand for this versatile material is expected to boom in relation to its scalability: When the problem of mass production is out of the way, there will be no stopping graphene's growth.

Graphene Investing 101: The Major Players

Yes, there is a plethora of companies working on graphene development, and that number is growing all the time. Among them are some of the biggest names in the technology world today.

Samsung (OTC: SSNLF) is the most prominent in the graphene market, with the most graphene-use patents of anyone in the world. Currently, the company is developing a graphene-coated battery. The goal is to optimize the device's charging efficiency, taking 12 minutes to completely charge instead of an hour. The battery will also keep its device cooler while charging. This is expected to release within the new year or in 2022.

IBM (NYSE: IBM) has plans to invest $3 billion into the development of advanced computer chips that use graphene rather than copper. In addition, the company reached No. 1 on the 2019 Top 50 U.S. Patent Assignees list. The company's research team has also just discovered a medical use for polymer-coated graphene to stimulate the immune system. IBM researchers, for the first time, were able to electrify graphene, using it to help deposit nanomaterials without leaving chemicals behind. IBM is one of the leading players in graphene nanoplatelet (GNP) electronics as well. 

G6 Materials Corp. (TSX-V: GGG; OTCQB: GPHBF) is the world leader in graphene-based solutions that offer the "miracle material" to big names, from NASA to Harvard. It recently signed a licensing agreement with biopharmaceuticals as well. Three big projects are coming out of G6 Materials: one to develop graphene composites for marine vessels, one in pharmaceuticals to treat certain lung conditions, and one for an enhanced air filtration system. The graphene oxide air purification filter this company has developed broke records in the quarter-over-quarter revenue growth it experienced in late May.

The next big name is SanDisk (NASDAQ: SNDK), which has the second-largest number of graphene patents. SanDisk's research is focused on high-quality semiconductors and digital data storage technologies.

Even Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has patents although they are not the company's major focus right now. But the tech giant's presence on this list should alert investors to a pretty big opportunity nonetheless. 

The Graphene Council has a full list of companies, institutes, and even universities that are helping bring this amazingly useful material to commercial scale. You can access that list here for a more detailed look at what company to support as this amazing market comes into its own.

It may just begin with computers; Moore's law depends on the world finding a better material for smaller transistors. But there will be plenty of possibilities once graphene production is up to scale.

There is nowhere to go but up with graphene. And once it starts, there will be no stopping its proliferation into our everyday lives and everything that supports them.

Good investing,

Keith Kohl
Energy and Capital


Energy and Capital, Copyright © 2021, Angel Publishing LLC. All rights reserved. 3 E Read Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Your privacy is important to us – we will never rent or sell your e-mail or personal information. Please read our Privacy Policy. Neither the publisher nor the editors are registered investment advisors. Subscribers should not view this publication as offering personalized legal or investment advice. Read our Details and Disclosures.