New Developments in the Commercialization of Graphene

By Fred Greguras, Esq.

Graphene is a one-atom-thick carbon sheet with properties that private sector and university R&D labs around the world are investigating and testing for a wide range of commercial applications. I became interested in the material when I read about its potential applications in water purification and clean up, energy efficiency and in solar energy, particularly building-integrated photovoltaic (PV) solar power. The commercialization of the material has been limited to date because it has not been feasible to manufacture high-quality graphene in large quantities for mass commercial use on a cost-effective basis. While the material was discovered and not invented, graphene can be applied in many inventive ways. There are almost 3000 issued patents and just under 9000 patent applications in which the word “graphene” appears when the USPTO data base is searched. Samsung appears to be the early leader in the number of patent applications.

There are many possible applications of graphene still being studied in R&D labs around the globe. Following are a few of them. Graphene’s properties of low weight and great strength could eventually result in the manufacture of light weight components for vehicles and planes. The resulting lighter weight vehicles and aircraft would be more fuel efficient and electric vehicles would have greater range without sacrificing safety. In addition, graphene’s properties will result in batteries for EVs, mobile devices and other purposes that will last longer and recharge faster. Current research indicates the time needed to recharge a battery with a graphene anode is much shorter than with conventional lithium-ion batteries. The disposal of a graphene battery would not have any environmental issues.

A graphene water-filtering system could desalinate sea water at a lower cost than current reverse osmosis techniques without any toxic residual. Graphene filtering systems may also be used for ground water cleanup in places like California’s Central Valley. Graphene with nanometer-sized holes can be an extremely precise water filter with a fast water flow. It can distinguish between different molecules with a high degree of precision, filtering some and letting others pass through. The membranes used in reverse osmosis to filter the salt from the water are thick and require extremely high pressure and energy to force water through them. These membranes are about a thousand times thicker than graphene. A graphene system could operate with much lower pressure and energy requirements and therefore purify water at lower cost. For example, the desalination plant being built in Carlsbad, California is extremely expensive and has a toxic waste residual. The billion dollars’ cost per 100,000 households isn’t a good economic formula for the future.

Lower-cost graphene solar cells could replace silicon PV cells to generate electricity. Graphene reflects less light and absorbs more light which produces electricity more efficiently. Greater efficiency means a smaller surface of graphene could generate the same amount of electricity as a larger silicon surface. The development of a graphene solar cell could eliminate the need for higher-cost materials and the complicated manufacturing techniques needed for today’s PV solar cells. Graphene is effective at absorbing sunlight even when deployed in a thin layer. Presently, it is only possible to use building-integrated PV (solar panels integrated into building materials) for new building construction because retrofitting existing buildings is usually not cost effective. Ultra-thin sheets of graphene could ultimately be used to “wrap” any building so it can generate its own electricity.

None of these technologies are bankable yet but should be closely monitored and a patent strategy considered in a range of technology sectors. Some of these developments could be game changing resulting in product features that are faster, cheaper and better performing which transform entire industries and leave behind those with old technologies.

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Roger Royse
rroyse@rroyselaw.com

Roger Royse, the founder of the Royse Law Firm, works with companies ranging from newly formed tech startups to publicly traded multinationals in a variety of industries. Roger regularly advises on complex tax structuring, high stakes business negotiations and large international financial transactions. Practicing business and tax law since 1984, Roger’s background includes work with prominent San Francisco Bay area law firms, as well as Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy in New York City.
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