This miracle material could drive the next tech revolution

Strong, flexible and versatile, graphene has virtually unlimited potential. Merryn Somerset Webb looks at how it could radically change the world we live in, and picks the best ways to invest in this miracle material.

There is a holy grail for private investors.

It is getting in early on a technological or resource investment that changes the history of industry. The discovery of DNA, say, or the internal combustion engine.

Of course, those sorts of opportunities don't come along very often.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

But a few years ago I started hearing about something that might just fit the bill

How graphene could change our world

Graphene is a material generated from graphite. And it has some people very excited indeed.

Here's a quote from analysts LarrainVial. "The attributes of graphene transparence, density, electric and thermal conductivity, elasticity, flexibility, hardness resistance and capacity to generate chemical reactions with other substances harbour the potential to unleash a new technological revolution of more magnificent proportions than that ushered in by electicity in the 19th century and the rise of the internet in the 1990s."

Graphene could set in motion a new "economic growth spiral", making it the "compound of the 21st century".

So what exactly is graphene and how might it really work? For the science you can read this: What is graphene? But in a nutshell, it's a two rather than three-dimensional carbon material which makes up the basic structural element of graphite and charcoal. Oh, and for those who are worried about Britain's role in global science, it was discovered at the University of Manchester.

The key point is that it is almost unbelievably strong. According to Professor James Hone of Columbia University, it would take an elephant balanced on a pencil' to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of a piece of cling film. Indeed, you might remember articles in 2011 about how it could be used to build an elevator to space.

But while the strength of the material is key, it is its flexibility that is causing the most excitement in the scientific world.

Professor Andre Geim (co-holder of the Nobel Prize for his work on graphene) notes that, in effect, "graphene is not just one material. It is a huge range of materials". So it could be used in the same huge range of products and applications as plastic is at the moment. In theory it could eventually render the use of steels, copper, plastics and possibly even silicon obsolete.

All this said, the major world-changing applications remain theoretical. Yes, huge amounts of resources and time are now being poured into graphene research. The UK government came up with £50m last year, for example.

But so far the main result we can see has been from Samsung: a 25-inch flexible touchscreen using graphene. So it seems the first step in the new world of graphene is to revolutionise the way TV screens are made.

Next up looks likely to be the revolutionising of batteries. Engineers at Chicago's Northwestern University have found that a specially-crafted graphene electrode can allow a lithium-ion battery to store ten times as much power and charge ten times faster and last longer, too. (Find out more here.)

Demand for graphite is growing too

We're going to keep watching this one. But while we wait for the arrival of graphene superconductor and, with a bit of luck, the elevator to space, we are also watching what is going on in the graphite market itself.

Graphite isn't exactly rare (it is just a purer form of carbon than coal). But it is in rising demand in its own right, rather than just as a path to graphene.

Historically it has been used in the steel and motor industry thanks to its excellent conducting properties and resistance to corrosion. But it also plays a part in the making of lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells.

According to an interview on Mineweb, a lithium-ion battery needs "20 to 30 times more graphite by weight than it does lithium". That suggests graphite should be getting more attention than it is. These are the new batteries that are powering our phones, laptops, electronics, toys and of course the few electric cars that make it on to the road.

However, while graphite isn't rare, exploration has only recently been stepped up in response to this new type of demand. Technology has been moving faster than the explorers. According to Ryan Fletcher, CEO of ZIMtu Capital (speaking to Mineweb), prices have been low for the last decade. That means there has been "zero incentive to explore or fund or develop new graphite projects". But prices have increased threefold in the last three years. So now there is.

For more on all this you can visit, (where there is a good video on graphene) or

Companies operating in the graphene/graphite world include US-listed Hexcel Corp (NYSE:HXL) or Graftech International (NYSE:GTI), Japan's Toray Industries (Tokyo:3402) and German-listed SGL Carbon (DAX: SGL). David Fuller of notes that the share price of the latter remains "in a relatively consistent uptrend". For miners you might look at Syrah Resources (ASX: SYR) in Australia.

Otherwise there is an interesting little interview here with Canada's Focus Metals (CVE:FMS), which is looking to create low-cost graphene. This is worth watching. Right now graphene is very expensive finding a cheap way to produce it is the first part of the grail.

This article is taken from the free investment email Money Morning. Sign up to Money Morning here .

Rolls-Royce: a great British success story

Rolls Royce has just posted a record set of results and has an order book to match. So are its shares worth a buy, or is it time to take profits? Phil Oakley investigates.

Four ways to improve your returns

The year ahead promises yet more financial turbulence. So it's more important than ever to get the most out of your portfolio. Tim Bennett explains four ways to boost your profits.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.