Increasingly loss of differentiation
The graphene industry experienced a massive hype in the past 4-5 years, although the hype is beginning to die down and elements of the industry have now even entered the valley of despair.
The number of companies supplying graphene has dramatically increased and now more than 35 suppliers exist. The first batch of companies formed in 2006-2007 are the furthest ahead as the majority of the new companies have little capital or revenue today. Nonetheless, the proliferation of companies is eroding meaningful differentiation all around.
The competitive landscape is further changing as Chinese players have entered the fray with ambitious nominal production capacity announcements. If validated, this will plunge the industry into massive over-capacity with utilisation rates being in the single digits industry-wide. This however is no surprise as players prepare for the volume orders that will emerge out of the undergoing qualification processes.
Substitution go-to-market strategy
Graphene’s commercialisation strategy is mostly centred on substituting an existing or incumbent solution. The incumbent material is varied ranging from graphite, black carbon, ITO, etc. This strategy requires a more-for-less value proposition but graphene is yet to conclusively prove this. The prices are very high, reflecting small volume sample supply but they will fall as volumes appear.
The so-called ‘killer application’ which graphene uniquely enables or in which graphene has a first mover advantage is still missing. The versatility of graphene as a material as well as the sustained multi-billion-dollar R&D investment suggests that an application will be found. This is however impossible to forecast, but does mean that there is a strong upside potential to our forecasts.
Prices are still confused on the market covering a range from tens to thousands of $/Kg. This partly reflects the fact that not all graphene materials are equal. It also reflects the market conditions in which sales still mostly stem from small-volume research samples that command a high prices. Many suppliers also worry about triggering a premature commoditization. The strong downward price pressures are how intrinsic to the go-to-market strategy and several players have started to set the trend in price lowering.
Intermediary are needed to unblock the market
Graphene reaches the end application or market via an intermediary (e.g., an ink or a masterbatch). It is critical to develop intermediaries in order to unblock the market, cut down the time-to-market and reduce end user risk/uncertainty. At the same time, graphene is least dangerous to handle when it is in a stable pre-dispersed medium.
This however is not straightforward because graphene is hard to formulate or compound thanks to its large surface area and tendency to aggregate or re-stack. In fact, we believe that graphene quality – a subject of constant debate- will find meaning only at the intermediary level. At this level, the product quality will reflect the properties of the graphene as well as the skill of the compounder.
Graphene has an extraordinary set of properties. It therefore has potential across many applications. This is a particular risk for small poorly-capitalised company because they risk over-dosing on the diverse opportunity if they don’t choose their target applications carefully.
The graphene market today is dominated by research sales although the robust sales pipelines being built now suggests that the market composition will dramatically change in the decade to come. The largest sectors will be composites, energy storage and functional/conductive coatings, although each one will be split across several sub-sectors. Graphene platelets will dominate the sales particularly as their selling prices plunge, while graphene sheets will remain a small niche that will grow only from 2019/2020 onwards.
Transparent conductive films will remain a challenging market. Here graphene sheet is a substitute that offers a less-for-more value proposition compared to the incumbent (ITO films) and other leading ITO alternatives. This will not fly in an already rapidly consolidating market.
Graphene conductive inks are occupying the vast performance space between carbon and metallic pastes. Success will come as the performance inches towards the 1 ohm/sqr target and the prices fall. This will be the first sector to convert potential to revenues.
Supercapacitors remain an unproven market as actual graphene electrodes punch well below their theoretical limit due to graphene stacking, poor surface utilisation and poor out-of-plane conductivity. It will hard to displace activated carbon en-mass, although recent commercial-level results suggest that graphene will offer a more-for-more value proposition which will work in some niche sectors. Graphene-enabled electrodes will improve capacity retention at high discharge rates, and will extend the cycle life of post-lithium ion batteries like Si anode and Li sulphur (GO works better here than rGO). These markets will increasingly grow in the medium-to-term.
Graphene additives give rise to electrical and thermal conductivity, reduced permeation and increased mechanical strength. Here, graphene should either enable a more efficient material utilisation or a much higher performance. The former means that a higher $/Kg price can still result in the same overall cost to the user (less of a more expensive material); while the latter will enable a more-for-same or more-for-more value proposition compared to other alternatives.
Graphene will fail in transistor applications although other 2D material may have a chance (ultra-long term). Graphene will find success in some sensor types in the medium to long term. Price will remain a prohibiting factor in high-volume anti-corrosion applications for the foreseeable future.
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