|Graphene Could Replace Silicon, But Chip Firms Lag |
Investors Business Daily, September 21, 2011
Observers hail graphene as a new wonder material that could replace silicon in chips and change electronics and other sectors.
Just one problem: The semiconductor equipment industry has yet to jump on the graphene bandwagon by developing gear and manufacturing tools to handle the material.
But graphene research is booming at U.S. universities. R&D labs are developing uses for graphene in communications devices, solar cells, flexible touch-screens, aircraft materials, gas tanks and more. The labs, out of necessity, use their own in-house techniques for graphene-related research.
The chip equipment industry must play a bigger role, says Michael Fritze, director of the disruptive technologies program at the Information Sciences Institute, University of Southern California.
"A step in the right direction would be to have some high-quality commercial tools available," he said.
Many obstacles exist to commercializing products based on graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon that's organized like chicken wire in molecular form. Graphene, a form of graphite, wasn't discovered until 2004. The material, though, got a big boost in October. That's when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two University of Manchester, England, scientists, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their pioneering research on graphene.
The material is said to be 100 times stronger than steel and conducts electricity as well as copper. Thus it's touted as a replacement for silicon in computer chips. Researchers plan to use it also to strengthen plastics, coatings and conductive inks such as those that provide copper etchings on chips.
Small CVD Equipment ( CVV) is among leaders in graphene, looking to sell it to universities and industrial researchers. The Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based company had sales of just $7.5 million last quarter, but its early work in graphene has helped the stock.
Germany's Aixtron ( AIXG) also is an early leader in graphene.
But Applied Materials ( AMAT) and other leading makers of manufacturing gear used to make chips, flat-panel displays and solar panels have stayed on the sidelines. None has yet disclosed they are actively developing gear that would be used to put ultrathin graphene layers on copper, plastic or glass substrates.
Chip gear companies, though, have shown interest.
In May, USC's Fritze headed a graphene conference that brought together university researchers and companies. He says gear makers such as Applied Materials seemed to be in serious talks with other attendees.
Some Production Under Way
Graphene is produced in very small amounts by U.S. companies such as Vorbeck Materials, XG Sciences and Angstron Materials, says a Lux Research report. Some universities bake their own graphene in high-temperature ovens. The big challenge for researchers is developing manufacturing tools, says Lux Research analyst Jonathan Melnick.
"Research is still at a basic, fundamental level of getting graphene into products," Melnick said. "They're trying to figure out cheaper, more efficient ways to produce graphene. It's a challenge getting (manufacturing) scale up and costs down."
Samsung and Texas Instruments ( TXN) are among chipmakers with graphene-related R&D under way. Samsung last year licensed graphene patents from Unidym, a unit of Arrowhead Research ( ARWR).
"Many university research labs are looking at graphene. IBM ( IBM) has done a lot of work. Intel ( INTC) has R&D," said Dean Freeman, an analyst at market research firm Gartner. "But it's still sandbox, early-stage type work. There's nothing close to volume production.
"If graphene moves closer to reality, then you will see (big) equipment companies looking at how to address the market."
CVD Equipment last year teamed with startup Graphene Laboratories to sell graphene substrate services to universities and industrial labs. CVD hasn't disclosed its graphene sales, though they likely remain quite small.
The big question remains whether graphene is the real thing, not another overhyped technology such as carbon nanotubes. Scientists say it'll be at least five to 10 years before applications of graphene technology come to market.
USC's Fritze, however, says thin films of graphene have been successfully put on wafers, opening the door to electronics applications. There are hurdles, though. While graphene conducts electricity, researchers have yet to develop on/off switches in circuitry as in silicon-based devices.
Freeman says graphene-based devices will emerge first for communications devices that don't require digital switches, such as high-frequency microwave transmitters used in satellites.
Fritze says graphene sheets have been put on bigger-size substrates for various purposes. He says "smart windows" is one area of research, especially in South Korea. Smart glass controls how much light and heat passes through.
How soon graphene-based products emerge "depends on how seriously companies invest in it and what the potential looks like after they kick the tires," Fritze said.
Many startups have sprouted, some spun out of university labs. In June, Korean steel firm Posco acquired a 20% stake in XG Sciences, a spin-off of Michigan State University. Texas-based Graphene Energy is working on energy storage.
Graphene is a two-dimensional form of graphite, basically pencil lead. Companies that sell graphite are moving into graphene.