In graphene we trust: How Poland is putting confidence and cash in a material still on the starting blocks

Poland is betting heavily on the future of graphene, even though it's some time away from commercial use.
Written by Michiel van Blommestein, Contributor

Even though there are no real practical uses for it just yet, the Polish treasury has set great store by the production of graphene. In anticipation of a potentially huge global market for the material, one of its companies, Nano Carbon, is investing in machines to be used for mass production.

The properties and possibilities of graphene are being talked up widely in the world of tech — unbreakable touchscreens for smartphones is just one of the more banal uses mooted for graphene. Enabling wireless speeds of 1TBps  and a host of medical possibilities are also thought to lie ahead for the material.

Graphene, which is derived from graphite, hit the headlines in 2010 when two scientists (Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov) won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on it. Research on the material began several years before that though, with graphene first isolated in 2004.

However, so far there have been no real world uses of the material, known for both its strength and conductivity. And while the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology (ITME) in Warsaw has figured out ways to manufacture graphene, machines capable of bulk production on an industrial scale do not exist yet.

Despite all that, Poland's investments in graphene are well under way. Since December last year, Nano Carbon has been selling small graphene samples worldwide to whoever's interested, mostly universities and R&D departments.

"We have production facilities in Warsaw, and are investing in more machines in order to make the jump to mass production," Nano Carbon's business development manager Jan Blaszczyk told ZDNet. High profile clients include big names such as Hitachi and IBM.

For a partly state-run venture (Nano Carbon was founded in 2011 by Poland's Agency for Industrial Development and KGHM TFI, an investment fund owned by mining giant KGHM), investing in such an experimental material may seem risky, but Blaszczyk says it's a sign of confidence in the material.

Nano Carbon's business model is to build a relationship with potential buyers of graphene by selling samples. Once they come up with applications, the hope is they will return to Nano Carbon for larger quantities of the material. So far, the number of clients that have used Nano Carbon's webshop runs in the dozens. "We are not planning to remain an online retailer [of graphene] forever," Blaszczyk said. "Selling the samples is not a core business in itself, even if it provides us with some income."

"We are already producing graphene using a process called CVD (chemical vapour deposition) on copper and silicon carbide, which results in the highest quality graphene available," he said. "In a few years, we should be able to produce square meters of graphene, or tens to hundreds kilograms of graphene flakes, per day."

Poland claims to be the first to have a graphene-specific program, but so do other countries, most notably China. However, Blaszczyk has doubts about that suggestion.

"In my opinion, there are two worlds of graphene," he said. "There exists a low quality market, which consists of graphite nanopowder for example, which is only called graphene for sales purposes. In fact, it has nothing to do with graphene, but is rather graphite or even amorphous carbon structures. It's very easy to produce in large quantities. However, in the United States, Europe, Korea and Japan, companies are trying to acquire high quality graphene layers with the unbelievable properties we are looking for."

It's not straightforward to work out how much money has been put into Poland's development work in graphene. So far, the Polish government invested more than PLN 200m (€50m) into different technology supporting mechanisms, including Nano Carbon. Indirect investments include the green lighting of a PLN 36m (€9m) local grant for ITME.

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