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.

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 graphene-info.com, megagraphite.com (where there is a good video on graphene) or GrapheneTimes.com.

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 Fullermoney.com 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 .

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