Graphene: The Miracle Material Making a Comeback

Senior technologist Dariusz Czolak holds a piece of silicon carbide disk covered with a layer of graphene, obtained in the process of epitaxy, in the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology (ITME) laboratory in Warsaw October 23, 2012. Kacper Pempel/REUTERS

"Graphene" was once the buzzword of boardrooms. Two hundredfold tougher than steel, one million times thinner than human hair, graphene is the superflexible Superwoman of materials, a 2D carbon allotrope one atom thick. At the beginning "Graphene" could move shareholders and lift share prices. The G-word hit the, well, investment G-spot.

Then the backlash: mere mention of the G-word became a "sell" signal. Today, shares of graphene producers languish well off their peaks. Is G-technology looking oversold?

Among the largest graphene producers is Applied Graphene Materials (AGM). It raised £11m in 2013 to build laboratories and a factory in north-east England aiming to break even by 2017. "We have capacity for two tonnes a year," says Jon Mabbitt, CEO

While real-world G-technology races ahead, two tonnes might not be enough. "Korea, Singapore, China and the States are investing heavily. Britain has put in about £120m; the EU €1bn," says Mabbitt.

AGM's niche is graphene nanoplatelets derived from alcohol and then dispersed into other compounds. The clever bit is the dispersal. "We will soon have components that prove graphene's promise in functional fluids, oils that reduce friction, coatings, scratch-resistant paint and advanced composites."

Having previously worked in carbon fibre, Mabbitt reckons sport will grab graphene first. "Graphene is an additive. Speed of adoption should therefore be quicker than carbon fibre." Head, the Austrian ski manufacturer, leads the charge with several patents for graphene-laced tennis rackets, skis and snowboards. Catlike, the Spanish manufacturer, is infusing cycle helmets with graphene. The future of cycle frames is nothing but graphene. Grays International has introduced graphene to hockey sticks. I bet you the next America's Cup will be graphene vs graphene.

But a reality-check is necessary. I doubt that a few flakes of graphene make the slightest difference to performance, but they make a big difference to price.

However, the take-up by sports brands offers the graphene industry a great marketing platform, as sports-mad Mabbitt can tell you. "Haha! Yes, when I went around the City to raise money for AGM's float, I took with me a Head 'graphene' tennis racket." It worked. Is that the magic of graphene or the magic of tennis rackets?

Expect the G-word to buzz anew, this time at Formula 1 circuits, tennis courts, velodromes, ski slopes, golf courses and yacht builders.