Is Graphene Green? This question comes up an increasing amount. Green drivers and ESG investments are an obvious focus across the supply chain, but where does graphene fit into this discussion? IDTechEx explore the answer in this article.
The short answer - no
As assessed in IDTechEx's latest report, "Graphene Market & 2D Materials Assessment 2023-2033", the capacity for graphene easily exceeds 12,000 tpa. Nearly all of this comes from a graphite feedstock and uses a top-down approach, with liquid phase exfoliation and oxidation-reduction being dominant. Each process will have a different impact, given the energy efficiency, water requirements, and chemicals used, but given the feedstock and general approach, IDTechEx do not think it is possible to call graphene a "green material".
The long answer - no, but...
Despite the above, there are several arguments to be made for graphene's green credentials.
1. A lower footprint and lower loading than incumbent additives. This has been claimed by some companies, in which they state that against their petrochemical counterparts, such as carbon black, they have a lower CO2 footprint per tonne, and the higher performance results in lower loading.
2. Can alternative feedstocks be used? This is a growing trend with several companies emerging to utilize waste, by-products, or renewable materials, and in several cases, coupling this with hydrogen production. Most of these are at an early stage in their commercial journey and will face challenges with the business model and product consistency, but it is certainly an area to watch as they promote their green solution. Key interview-based company profiles on established and emerging graphene manufacturers, as well as other players across the value chain, can be seen in the IDTechEx market report.
3. Can graphene be an enabling solution for sustainability? Sustainability is a key driver across many sectors and as pressure increases so will the need, this has presented an opportunity for graphene adoption.
Firstly, and most obviously, lithium-ion batteries are the major part of a booming energy storage market. Graphene plays a minimal role in this sector to date, but looking to the next generation of LiBs, silicon anodes will see significant adoption, and graphene is demonstrating itself as a potential enabling solution; before everyone gets too excited, it should be noted that graphene is just one option in an exceptionally competitive and well-funded field. There are lots of other energy storage areas graphene is active in, but none with the same potential, this includes Li-S (struggling technology), lead acid batteries (limited growth), Al-ion (early stage), and supercapacitors (growing niche).
Green polymers are a key topic that ranges from packaging to pipelines. Both recycled plastics and bioplastics have a consistent challenge with their mechanical performance vs the virgin incumbent material. Graphene has been explored as an additive here, and if adopted gives the potential for very high volumes, this is being explored by many in the field, but it is not straightforward with the production process and price of the upmost priority.
The current graphene hype is all about concrete, which is under pressure to reduce their well-documented emission problem. The potential for nanocarbons to improve the performance and crucially reduce the cement requirement has been known for a long time but has recently gained significant traction with more studies and demonstrations. Many graphene manufacturers see this as the industry's killer application and are positioning their business accordingly. The potential sales volume is, of course, enormous but this is a very conservative industry with very fine margins to contend with. If the orders do arrive, they will initially be for very specific use-cases, and if this expands, another question is who will have sufficient capacity, many talk of easily scaling their process, but that does not happen overnight.
There are several other applications for graphene with environmental drivers, including filtration membranes, sustainable electronics, and replacing toxic additives. Each market landscape is different and at various stages of graphene commercialization.
These market assessments, including granular 10-year market forecasts across 18 application areas, can be seen in the graphene market report.
As seen, the answer to whether graphene is green is more nuanced than it may appear. It is a question that will continue to circulate for many years as the graphene industry enters the next phase of its commercial journey.
For more information on all these points, as well as a critical, independent view of the entire graphene industry, then see IDTechEx's leading report, "Graphene Market & 2D Materials Assessment 2023-2033". For more information on this report, please visit www.IDTechEx.com/Graphene.