Graphene for Concrete

How Graphene Could Solve Our Concrete Problem

How Graphene Could Solve Our Concrete Problem


Welcome to this deep yet digestible dive into whether graphene is finally starting to deliver on its promise. As someone who has followed graphene closely since its rediscovery in 2004, I’ve been eager yet apprehensive to see if this “wonder material” can live up to its potential.

Graphene is indeed a revolutionary material with immense potential. It’s 200 times stronger than steel and highly conductive of heat and electricity. When it comes to concrete production, studies show that incorporating graphene can improve tensile strength, reduce water permeability, and potentially decrease the carbon footprint of concrete production.

However, despite these promising attributes, there are challenges to graphene’s widespread use. The main issue is the cost. The production of graphene is still an expensive process, which limits its broad application in industries like construction. Furthermore, there are also concerns about the environmental impact of graphene production, and some argue that more research is needed to ensure it’s safe and sustainable.

In this video, host Matt Ferrell explores recent advancements suggesting graphene may soon transform industries like energy storage and construction.

The question of whether graphene is the “wonder material” it’s been hyped up to be is subjective. It certainly has the potential to revolutionize many industries, including construction, but there are economic and environmental factors that need to be considered and addressed.”

While dense with key scientific principles, Matt breaks down graphene’s unique properties and manufacturing challenges in understandable terms. I especially appreciate how he translates emerging lab research into clear insights on practical applications hitting the market now and in the near future. For anyone struggling to separate graphene hype from reality, this is valuable viewing.

Matt compellingly reinforces graphene as a platform material with far-reaching potential, from more sustainable concrete to higher-density batteries. But he cautions meaningful scale and cost barriers persist. Though optimistic on recent progress, he urges pragmatic patience rather than breathless prognostication. If you’re eager to track graphene’s path from promise to widespread adoption, don’t miss this meticulously researched update. Let’s see if graphene’s time has finally come.

Video Transcript

Graphene is considered one of the most important breakthroughs in material science since its discovery. This wonder material was widely overhyped and is still not lived up to its potential. But since my previous video on the truth about graphene, we can now see more concrete and realistic applications hitting the market. Not those out-of-the-world promises like the space elevator. But what if we could cut down on carbon emissions from cement production by 20% and make cheaper and more powerful EV batteries using graphene? Is graphene finally starting to deliver on the promise? Let’s see if we can come to a decision on this.

I try my best to not get caught up in the hype, but I’m only human, at least that’s the rumor. The original graphene hype got me super excited for the future of battery technology and computer processors, but not space elevators. I’ve always thought that that was just too out there. However, we’re beginning to see this overhyped wonder material start to make its way into applications like building materials, energy storage, coatings, and electronics. Its potential benefits for those applications are what sometimes leads to so much of the hype since its discovery.

Now in my 2020 video about graphene, this material was still more like a promise than a reality. At the end of last year, I touched on how Skeleton Technologies used curved graphene in a new line of supercapacitors. It’s now 2022, and there are even more solid applications of graphene and research advancements happening right now that are worth exploring.

Before we take a deep dive into these recent advancements, let’s quickly revisit the basics of graphene. Graphene is a hexagonal honeycomb lattice made up of a single layer of carbon atoms. It’s a physical form of carbon with a molecule bond length of 0.142 nanometers, and each atom is connected to three more around it by bonds that are very tight. Graphene essentially has only two dimensions. If we stack several layers on top of each other, we can turn it into graphite.

Research on graphene started in 1947 by physicist Philip R. Wallace, but it was only discovered by researchers from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom in 2004 by Geim and Novoselov. They used a sticky tape to peel flakes from a lump of graphite, separating the layers until they were only one atom thick. The discovery was so revolutionary that they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010.

The wonder material, as graphene is often called, is one of the thinnest materials that we know of and the lightest compound ever discovered, weighing around 0.77 milligrams per square meter. Graphene is one of the strongest compounds, between 100 and 300 times stronger than steel, as well as one of the best heat and electricity conductors at room temperature. It has an electrical conductivity 70% higher than copper. You can probably see why it’s been overhyped.

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However, it hasn’t been easy to scale up graphene production. Although it has all the characteristics to be an excellent material in theory, manufacturing defect-free graphene is often too expensive. Its price can vary a lot based on manufacturing conditions, and the methods for the mass production of this material haven’t been cost-effective. It’s something that often happens in discoveries in the lab, bring it to the market, and producing it cheaply at scale can be extremely difficult.

Even though the best physical properties of graphene can be achieved using the peeling method proposed by Geim and Novoselov, it isn’t the most effective and feasible way to produce tons of graphene. Chemical vapor deposition, or CVD, is one of the main processes used to produce graphene. This procedure consists of synthesizing graphene on a substrate, often copper foil, but it’s still a challenge to produce long sheets of this material at scale.

However, one example of a partnership trying to push this boundary is the joint venture formed between the Chinese company Hangzhou Cable Company and the University of New South Wales that’s trying to manufacture graphene power cables. The cables could reduce electricity leakages, lowering electricity costs and carbon emissions while improving the quality of grid transmission. The technology developed by the university could save about 275 terawatt-hours in theory. But we haven’t seen this innovation come out of the lab just yet.

Even so, graphene isn’t just a list of unkept promises. There are a lot of places it’s creeping into production today, and most of it’s under the radar. In short, graphene has applications in places that you might not expect. Because graphene is strong, light, and an outstanding heat conductor, it can be a great material for producing heat sinks or heat dissipation films.

Huawei’s latest smartphones, for example, have adopted graphene-based thermal films. And the British company Graphene Lighting is producing LED lights using graphene as a thermal dissipation solution. Graphene can also be used for protective coatings with superior chemical, moisture, corrosion, and fire resistance.

The Chinese company The Sixth Element produces several graphene products, including a graphene-zinc anti-corrosion primer suitable for offshore wind turbine towers and has competitive prices compared to zinc epoxy primers. The big benefit is how it can improve the anti-corrosion properties of the paint by significantly reducing the amount of zinc powder and extending the lifespan of offshore wind turbines.

However, where I think graphene applications get super interesting is in the building sector. Before getting into those concrete ideas, I’d like to thank today’s sponsor, Surfshark. I always recommend using a VPN when using public Wi-Fi, but VPNs can be very useful even when you’re at home. A lot of online services use some pretty sophisticated commercial tracking and machine learning to apply very targeted advertising. A VPN can protect you from that. Surfshark’s CleanWeb does a great job blocking ads, trackers, and malicious websites, making it safer to use the internet even at home. And you can even make it look like your IP address is coming from a completely different country. This can come in handy if you want to stream a video that’s only available from a specific location.

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Now back to how graphene is starting to impact the building sector. The Australian-based company First Graphene has its sights on the cement and concrete industry. Cement accounts for about 8-10% of CO2 emissions, which explains why it was a target for CO2 reduction at COP26. 40 of the world’s biggest cement and concrete companies have banded together to speed up the transition to greener concrete by pledging to reduce CO2 emissions by 25% by 2030.

I had a chance to talk to some of the scientists and managers at First Graphene to get some details on why graphene can help with this. In the cement production roadmap, the main focus of carbon emissions is associated with the rotary cement kilns where the raw meal is burnt and calcined into something called clinker, which is used as the binder of cement. In this process, huge amounts of electricity are spent for every ton of clinker produced. We’re talking about 800-900 kilograms of CO2 per ton.

So, First Graphene is tackling the final grinding step where graphene can improve the efficiency of the cement grinding process. Graphene reduces the surface energy forces that cause agglomeration or clumping of the newly fractured cement particles. To do this, they produce graphene based on electrochemical exfoliation in which graphene is obtained from graphite when voltage is applied to it. The voltage makes ionic species intercalate, basically to inject themselves into the carbon layers where they produce gases that expand and exfoliate individual graphene sheets.

Now, instead of using tape to rip off layers of graphene, you’re using electricity to shed off layers of graphene. They can produce graphene platelets with sizes between 5 and 20 microns, which can then be easily dispersed in materials like concrete. Adding just a small amount of the graphene product, about 0.01% of the total concrete mix, can improve concrete’s tensile and compressive strength, also reducing the weight and the chances of cracking.

In my conversation with the company, they explained how these improvements happen. Graphene is a nanoscale reinforcement, like the steel reinforcement bar but at the atomic level. The graphene can permeate the cement gel and stop cracks from developing on the nanoscale. According to a case study made by the company, when tested to international standard methods, their product increases the compressive strength of concrete by 34% and the tensile strength by 27%. On top of that, it extends the life of the reinforced concrete structures because it avoids corrosion and also reduces the clinker by 20%.

And this is where that CO2 reduction comes into play because of how it helps with the clinker. CO2 emissions can be reduced by 18 to 20%, and the company has been diversifying applications in several other sectors, including automotive, aerospace, boat, wind turbine blade manufacturing, and a lot more. First Graphene CEO Michael Bell said, “A number of these products are already in commercial production, including graphene-enhanced swimming pools, footwear, fire-retardant paints, and wear liners for mining applications.”

First Graphene also has secured a UK patent for coating silicon anode particles with graphene for energy storage applications. These silicon anodes have the potential to achieve higher energy densities, 10 times higher than graphite anodes, which currently sit at about 400 milliamp hours per gram. Although this technology is still at the early stage of development, the big problem of these anodes is they degrade easily, have low intrinsic electrical conductivity, and have a slow diffusion rate of lithium within the electrode. But coating the anode with graphene could increase conductivity and reduce the degradation issue.

First Graphene isn’t alone here. Global Graphene Group is another company that’s been exploring this market. Similar to First Graphene, they manufacture several types of powders and pastes for different applications. Their technology can also be applied to energy storage to reduce problems with dendrites in lithium metal anodes of solid-state lithium-sulfur and lithium-air batteries, as well as helping to reduce fire risk. It enables the use of advanced cathode materials, such as NMC 811 or sulfur, which opens up room for energy density boosts, sometimes over 350 watt-hours per kilogram for lithium-sulfur batteries and keeps the cost lower than $100 per kilowatt-hour. If you haven’t seen it yet, I have another video on a lithium-sulfur battery breakthrough, and I wonder if these two things could be combined.

The Global Graphene Group is also focusing on silicon anodes with their subsidiary Inks from Energy. According to the company, the flexibility and mechanical strength of single-layer graphene wrapped around silicon nanoparticles help cushion the volume of the silicon during the charging and discharging process.

So, those are some of the good examples of where graphene production stands today and where companies are starting to pilot its applications. But what about tomorrow? You don’t have to look very far to see where the research is taking graphene.

An interesting study made by the researchers from Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology presented the first graphene synthesis approach that uses carbon monoxide as the carbon source. In addition to producing graphene at high quality, the technique proposed in the paper achieved low cost and great production speed.

SkolTech Professor Albert Nasibulin, who’s leading the research, said, “The beauty of carbon monoxide is that it’s exclusively catalytic decomposition, which allowed us to implement self-limiting synthesis of large crystals of single-layer graphene even at ambient pressure.” Their strategy takes advantage of the so-called self-limiting principle. When carbon monoxide molecules get close to the copper substrate at high temperatures, they tend to split into carbon and oxygen atoms. This propensity fades when the first layer of crystalline carbon is produced and separates the gas from the substrate.

According to SkolTech intern Artem Grebinko, the system offers several advantages. The resulting graphene is purer, grows faster, and forms better crystals. Moreover, this tweak prevents accidents with hydrogen and other explosive gases by eliminating them from the process altogether.

When it comes to costs, Grebinko pointed out, “Once you drop the high-end hardware for generating ultra-high vacuum, you can actually assemble our garage solution for no more than a thousand dollars.”

Graphene has the potential to improve material performance and also to chart a path towards our low-carbon future. The graphene market has been hot around the globe and is projected to grow from $388 million in 2021 to over $4 billion in 2028 at a rate of 39.8%. However, scaling up production and standardizing the quality of graphene are still challenging, which leads to cost as a big problem. Although graphene prices decreased from tens of thousands of dollars for a small piece in 2010 to about a hundred dollars a gram currently, it’s still an expensive material.

Although we can see exciting products and applications hitting the market now and in the very near future, it looks like we’re still waiting for the bigger promises of graphene. However, with companies like First Graphene and Global Graphene Group starting to push and perfect the manufacturing process, it’s looking like we’re closer to graphene’s promise than ever before.

So, are you still undecided? Do you think graphene is going to change industries like energy storage and construction, or is it still just hype? Jump in the comments and let me know. And be sure to check out my follow-up podcast, Still TBD, where we’ll be discussing some of your feedback.

If you like this video, be sure to check out one of the videos over here. Thanks to all my patrons for your continued support, and welcome to new Support Plus members Einar Olufsen, Joseph Fesser, and Sean (and I’m sorry if I butchered your names). And thanks to all of you for watching. We’ll see you in the next one.”