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Carbon nanomaterials can replace silicon in computer chips and change many other industries, but why are they lingering on the edge of commercialization?
In the past 20 years, great breakthroughs have been made in nanocarbon materials - composed of individual substances between 1 and 100 nanometers in size - opening up a wide range of possibilities from nanocomputing to smart medical implants.
Due to its unique strength and conductivity, carbon nanomaterials have the potential to replace silicon in computer chips.
However, commercialization of new materials is very difficult.Bringing laboratory results to large-scale production is a long and risky process, similar to bringing a new drug to market.Technical hurdles and the high cost of lab time and production have caused many disruptive materials to fail early on.
For carbon nanomaterials, conductivity issues and production challenges mean that computer chips based on carbon nanomaterials may be further away than initially expected.
Startups, R&D departments and university labs are currently developing and launching unique nanocarbon materials.
Graphene and Carbon Nanotubes
Due to their small size, nanomaterials have properties unmatched by conventional bulk materials, including a high strength-to-weight ratio (that is, high strength yet light weight) and excellent electrical connectivity.
Carbon-based nanomaterials—especially graphene and carbon nanotubes—have shown great potential as alternatives to various industrial materials.
Graphene is a single-atom-thick layer of carbon arranged in a honeycomb structure.
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are graphene sheets arranged in a tubular structure.
Carbon nanotubes were first discovered in the early 1990s, but graphene was only isolated in 2004 by scientists at the University of Manchester.
Graphene and carbon nanotubes have seen different development paths over the years, despite their similar properties and applications.
Graphene is the strongest material ever measured.It has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio, conducts electricity close to that of a superconductor, and is almost transparent.Industries from aerospace to semiconductors to sports equipment are investigating how graphene can be used to improve performance.
Graphene aerogel, one of the lightest materials in the world
Driven by the semiconductor industry, CNT-related research has become more concentrated.IBM has dedicated significant resources to developing carbon nanotubes for use in computer chips.
Graphene VC 'Fever reduction'
From 2007 to 2015, funding for graphene startups increased steadily.However, the 2016 drop in deals and funding has not fully recovered.
This decline reflects the typical loss of attractiveness in advanced materials development, where the technology is then caught between breakthrough and commercialization.
Startups in this space are working to develop specific graphene products — such as batteries, medical devices and electronics — or are finding ways to efficiently produce the material for general use.
For example, Vorbeck Materials is developing graphene-based inks and coatings for the printed electronics market.The company's graphene products can be used in wearable electronics, RFID (radio frequency identification), sensors and other applications.
On the production side, XG Sciences, which received funding from Dow Ventures and Samsung Ventures, manufactures and sells graphene materials.The company's proprietary process creates small stacks of graphene sheets called 'nanosheets', which are used as additives for various applications.
CNT-related financing is also declining
Startups are also developing carbon nanotube technology, although few companies have entered the field.
Startups focused on carbon nanotubes also saw a drop in funding after 2015, possibly for the same reasons that graphene funding plummeted.After years of R&D investment, carbon nanotubes have encountered technical obstacles.20 years after its initial breakthrough, it is still not widely adopted.
Nantero is one of the most well-funded and ambitious CNT startups.The company has developed NRAM (non-volatile random access memory) using CNT, which it hopes will replace DRAM (dynamic random access memory) and flash memory as the main semiconductor storage devices.
Nantero believes that CNT technology can be used to make chips with higher densities than conventional semiconductor materials, greatly increasing speed and memory.
Nantero has licensed its technology to Fujitsu, taking a step toward commercialization.However, technical and market hurdles still need to be overcome before carbon nanotubes can be widely used in high-end computing.
Businesses prefer to carry out in-house R&D activities rather than start investing
All major semiconductor companies are working on graphene for chips and batteries.According to CBinsights' patent search engine, Samsung is the largest semiconductor manufacturer with more than 200 graphene-related patents.In late 2017, the company announced the development of graphene battery materials that can charge five times faster than conventional batteries.
Carbon nanotubes have received substantial R&D investment from the semiconductor industry and large tech companies.IBM holds more than 200 patents related to carbon nanotubes and has invested heavily in developing the material.
In the aerospace field, graphene has shown excellent properties as an additive to composite materials such as carbon fibers.A 2010 study from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that graphene outperforms carbon nanotubes, making composites stronger, stronger and less prone to defects.
Airbus has also invested in graphene-related research and has 6 graphene-related patents.
Technical barriers hold back applications
Graphene and carbon nanotubes are currently difficult to transfer from the laboratory to large-scale production and to exploit their unique material properties.
For example, graphene conducts electricity better than silicon or copper.Combined with its strength, weight and transparency, graphene's electrical conductivity makes it possible to replace silicon-based computer chips and improve everyday electronics.
But there's a catch - graphene is a 'gapless' semiconductor, which means that the flow of current through the material cannot be stopped.Computer chip manufacturers had to introduce a 'band gap' into silicon chips, which allowed users to shut down the device by stopping the flow of electrons.The difficulty of this process is a key obstacle to commercialization.
For quite some time, the methods used to introduce band gaps into graphene have been inefficient or have changed the material and the associated superior properties have disappeared.
In April 2018, scientists led by the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology introduced a method for growing 'graphene' materials with band gaps.This important step in developing graphene-based chips took nearly 15 years after graphene's initial breakthrough in 2004, demonstrating the difficulty and time required to develop new materials.
Carbon nanotubes have band gaps that make them easy to incorporate into computer chips -- but mass production is a crucial issue.
Manipulating the billions of tiny structures in carbon nanotubes is extremely difficult because the orientation of the nanotubes must be controlled to take advantage of their unique properties.Before widespread adoption, improved production methods are needed to provide uniform, defect-free carbon nanotubes.
Market Barriers: Silicon Remains Big in Computing
Market barriers to carbon nanomaterial adoption may be more challenging than technical challenges.New materials face skepticism and stagnation as they try to fit into existing supply chains.
Amanda Barnard, a physicist in charge of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, said in an interview in 2014: 'We have already received trillions of dollars in investment from global silicon chips, and we are not leaving this lucrative field. '
$3.5 billion Samsung semiconductor manufacturing facility, Austin, Texas, USA
Existing players will either improve existing products or ignore new materials before giving up on continuing to invest.The comprehensive replacement of existing materials by graphene is likely to take a long time to achieve synergistic applications with materials such as silicon.
Another hurdle is standardization.A recent review of 60 graphene products by the Graphene Council revealed that more than 75% had no single material property.Standardization needs to be introduced if manufacturers want to sell graphene effectively.
Also, if the material is to be upgraded as a replacement, the price of graphene will have to plummet.Graphene is scarce and expensive today, but it needs to be transformed into a commodity-like material to become a viable alternative to silicon-based semiconductors.
Once that happens, graphene-focused startups may not be able to compete on price.Smaller graphene startups could go out of business or face acquisitions by semiconductor makers such as materials companies like Dow Chemical that might want to increase graphene capacity.