Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Chinese Graphene Story

Many of you may have been marveled by China's rise as a technological superpower. Most people in Asia saw this as a natural thing. China had always been a scientific and technological powerhouse and during the Mongol period, Chinese industrial production had expanded significantly to serve a global market. Obviously during the colonial era, China's economy suffered and declined but for over half a century, the Chinese government has been saying it will restore China to its original position as the dominant nation in the industrial and technological space.

Today China is clearly the world's manufacturing hub, China is also very rich, and has a massive military which seems to have a lot of high technology. This all seems in line with the Chinese Communist Party's narrative of restoring China to its former glory.

There is however a significant disconnect in the story. Chinese manufacturers are simply mass producing technologies invented and brought to market elsewhere. Someone else did all the heavy lifting required to invent something, bring it from lab to factory and factory to market and the Chinese are simply producing it cheaper at scale utilizing their massive labor market. This is not the mark of a nation that is *dominant* in manufacturing and technology. This kind of thing is more the sign of a follower not a leader.

One arena where China hopes to significantly change this narrative fracture is scale production of Graphene based products, One of the most lucrative products made with Graphene would be a graphene film (on glass or transparent plastic) for electronic displays (TVs, Phones, etc...) and energy storage/harvesting (solar cells, batteries etc...).  The biggest advantage of these films would be their lack of reliance on a globally narrow resource (Indium) and their ability to provide superior performance (optical and electrical) to Indium Tin Oxide.

No one in the world appears to have found a way to make it at scale. The Chinese want to change that. The scale of production that the competitive technology (Indium-Tin-Oxide on PET) is on the order of 1 bsf/y (billion square feet/year). At present an ITO film costs on the order of $1/sqft which is a pretty hefty price for a static material. That being said getting Graphene films to match this is a daunting task but if one takes a closer look at it, the Chinese may actually have a real shot at getting this done.

Most of other people trying to scale up graphene are small startups in the West and in East Asia, both these regions are economically depressed right now and can't really bring anything to market without Chinese participation. China has been buying out startups and intellectual property at a stunning rate in these nations, and given how easy it is to access production resources inside China (as opposed to from outside China), the likelihood of any of these technologies being scaled up at cost by companies in the West or in East Asia is pretty low.

Existing scale suppliers of PET/ITO, PET/PEDOT and other similar materials, currently are fairly secure in their process and market share. They are less likely (and capable) of diving into a high-risk venture like Graphene based films. As things stand today, these existing industrial players rely on cheap Chinese labor to produce their products, so if push came to shove on a purely technological front, I suspect that the Chinese would have huge leverage over these existing players.

For those of you who are like me, I am sure you are familiar with the work of Hongpo Shen. You might think that he is optimistic, but I can't find fault with any of the facts in his narrative. If you have access to actual data on the variations in the conductivity and transmission of these films obtained from a supplier in China, please share it.

I feel the story of Chinese Graphene (especially the difference between promise and real world performance) will be a great reference point for discussing China's true capacity and capability for global leadership in the technology.

ps. I am gradually shifting to a more technology focus on this blog. I have a set of big-data tools lined up for mining things I find interesting, so if you like this article, please let me know so that I can decide how to proceed with these articles.


At 10:15 PM, Blogger Nanana said...

Go ahead Mav - this is good information!

At 10:16 PM, Blogger Nanana said...

BTW, and something for you to consider, a lot of interesting blogging is moving to more social platforms (like Facebook - surprisingly! and medium)

At 11:38 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Hi Nanana,

I am considering other platforms, but I would like to pull some data focused articles before I switch to a different format.

I have stuck to a opinion piece style here because that is favored in the subcontinent, but there is usually a great deal of data analysis that goes on in the background which people don't get to see. A fully referenced article style I pushed as the editor of the Monitor or the SRR, was suitable for academics, but not for lay people.

Something in the middle is needed. Something that utilizes big data visualization tools and combines them with the insight that only comes from years of observing the situation.

I want to create a data centered news and opinion channel which tries to decipher national technology choices. Going forward I want to talk about what influences the choice of national "must have" tech - for example

- AWACS/AEW&CS platforms for Pakistan,
- the Thorium saga in India
- the Graphene Storyboard in China
- the American quest for a combined cycle Turbo-Ramjet.
- the Iranian desire for an OTHR platform
- the Israeli search for a BMD option

Unfortunately while to the tools I used for data analysis and aggregation are freely available, very few people know how to use them correctly.

So hopefully I can create a Github repository of codes that help others mine the internet for usable information.


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