By now you’ve probably heard of the coming graphene revolution. Perhaps it was in 2004, when a team of scientists at the University of Manchester in England announced they’d isolated a carbon-based supermaterial just one atom thick but more than 160 times stronger than steel. It could pass electrical signals 250 times faster than silicon and conduct heat 10 times more efficiently than copper.
Or maybe you heard about it in 2010, when the same team won a Nobel Prize in Physics “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material.” Since then, businesses worldwide have salivated over graphene’s technical and commercial possibilities, but barriers—including scale, quality control, and cost—have delayed those promises until now.
A few startups—and Fortune 500 companies—have realized that the material offers superlative performance as an additive to existing consumer staples, rather than as a stand-alone material that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per kilogram. Instead of a “miracle material,” graphene is being sprinkled into products “like pixie dust,” says Julia Attwood, an analyst for Bloomberg NEF.
Earlier this year, London-based sportswear brand Vollebak released a $695 jacket that capitalizes on the material’s incredible ability to retain heat. “Graphene’s an arms race between the U.S., Europe, and Asia,” says Steve Tidball, who founded the company with his twin brother, Nick. The production run of about 1,000 pieces sold out in less than three days.
Growth will be driven by much bigger players than niche sportswear startups. Although bendable tablets and fast-charging car batteries won’t arrive until at least a year, more incremental innovations are coming. Huawei Technologies Co.’s Mate 20x series marks the first time graphene has been used in a smartphone. Mackenzie fly rods have integrated the material for a better bend in its fishing poles, while tennis gear manufacturer Head has released a line of graphene rackets for truer serves. The fall collection of Prada SpA’s sporty Linea Rossa includes jackets that use nylon and graphene to help regulate body temperature. Ray-Ban is already using it in sunglasses.
That’s just the beginning, says Bamidele Ali, chief commercial officer of XG Sciences Inc., a Lansing, Mich., company that supplies the graphene found in noise-dampening products scheduled to appear under the hoods of Ford Mustangs and F-150 pickups in late 2018. “In 2016, we produced about two metric tons of graphene,” he says. “In 2017, we produced about 20 tons of graphene, and this year we’ll make over 100 tons. We could have scaled to a thousand.”
The pace of getting these innovations onto retail shelves is moving quite quickly, historically speaking. Consider that the transistor didn’t come along until 130 years after the discovery of silicon. Here are four products that got a lot better with a little bit of graphene:
thumbnail courtesy of bloomberg.com