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Has graphene's time in the sun already come and gone? The super-material that's stronger than diamonds, lighter than downy fluff, conducts electricity better than copper, and can be produced in layers no thicker than an atom, is about to be dethroned as the reigning toughest-stuff-on-earth material.
A flurry of articles about a new carbon substance, carbyne, were published recently after Rice University said the material was actually twice as stiff as graphene, significantly stronger, yet even more flexible. While companies like IBM, Intel, and Nokia are already employing graphene's amazing properties in products today, the revelations seemed to suggest investors looking to capitalize on its potential may have already missed the boat.
Not so fast. While graphene isn't exactly new, having been discovered within the past decade, carbyne actually has an older pedigree going back to the 1960s, but scientists always figured it was an unstable material. That is until the university's research suggested otherwise, and in that suggestion lies the hitch in carbine supplanting graphene any time soon.
Scientists have created individual strands of carbyne, but not sheets of it like they have with graphene, as they suspect it will shatter when they do. Moreover, not everyone is a believer in the miracle powers of this material, and myths and misconceptions about its abilities still persist. Particularly, Nobel laureate Harry Kroto says, "The existence of carbyne is myth based on bad science and perhaps even wishful thinking." He also says there are a few myths surrounding grapheme that also need to be laid to rest.
Whether it's graphene or carbyne, I'll admit my eyes glaze over a bit when the discussion turns to the actual science behind the materials, though I perk up a bit more when it comes to talking about their investment potential.
It doesn't take long, however, to deflate whatever excitement is generated because, for one, there are no real graphene pure plays. It's possible that a couple of penny stocks may purport to be such, but I'd be leery that they're just glomming onto the latest hot fad. While graphite producer GrafTech International (NYSE: GFI ) is often mentioned as the closest one can get, because it produces the base material -- graphite -- used in graphene's production, d it really hasn't done much work in this area since filing a few patents a few years ago, and its latest SEC filings and corporate presentations are devoid of the subject.
Indeed, Samsung and Sandisk have probably done more to patent its potential than anyone else and, like rare earth elements, China is the most prolific producer of the mineral, mining about three quarters of the world's graphite, or some 800,000 metric tonnes. So where IBM was the pioneer in developing graphene-based processors, and Samsung is moving forward patenting touch screens developed with the carbon material, buying into those stocks to gain exposure is tangential, at best.
It remains an exciting field of study, but investors will still find it hard to make a buck off of it. Even so, it doesn't appear carbyne will cause graphene to act as if it's been exposed to kryptonite anytime soon.