I first heard of graphene earlier this year on a discussion board, where someone essentially asked, "People say it's going to be huge, but what is it and how can we profit from it?"
The answer to the first question is a bit easier than the second, because two scientists at the University of Manchester in Great Britain first discovered it and won a Nobel prize for it. So that means no publicly traded company is going to have a lock on it, but that's not stopping them from patenting how its being used. Everyone from IBM (NYSE:IBM) and Samsung to Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) are rushing to tap its incredible properties.
OK, so what exactly is graphene? It's a carbon-based substance and as such gives diamonds a run for the money as being the hardest substance known to man. (It's actually harder.) Yet it's lighter than down fluff, it can conduct electricity better than copper, and even at a thickness of just one atom it can serve as the lattice for powering chips while being both flexible and transparent. Graphene is being hailed as a miracle substance.
Already scientists are imagining the possibilities of what can be done with the material: Charge your cell phone in 30 seconds, or, better yet, fully recharge your electric car's batteries in an hour.
Faster than a speeding bullet
As explained in the following video, a battery stores a lot of energy, but it charges and discharges slowly. A camera's flash bulb, on the other hand, doesn't have much storage, but it charges and discharges very quickly. Graphene combines those two features into a sort of supercapacitor that has lots of energy storage and charges and discharges very fast. Yet because it's carbon-based, it doesn't harm the environment.
IBM was the first to use the material to create graphene-based integrated circuits back in 2011, having created the year before a graphene processor that could execute 100 billion cycles per second (100GHz). Intel and Samsung are now looking into graphene-based processors, while Nokia is part of a consortium of 74 companies that received a grant of $1.35 billion from the European Union to figure out how to use graphene to "improve the world." It's experimenting in electronics and mobile communications.
A needle in a haystack
Yet try to invest in any one of these companies to get exposure to graphene, and you're taking a pretty circuitous route and only nibbling at the corners. Perhaps a better route might be looking at producers of graphite, as that's the material from which graphene is made. Unfortunately, most of the mineral is produced in China. It produces some 800,000 metric tonnes annually, making it the 800-pound gorilla in the space, with the next closest producer being India at 130,000 metric tonnes. It's not even mined in the United States.
While there are a few foreign companies or micro caps that are involved in graphite production, GrafTech International (UNKNOWN:GTI.DL) may be the best avenue for investors to take, as it's the leading producer of graphite electrodes and was one of the top 20 graphene patent holders at one time, ahead of such giants as General Electric and Bayer. Yet it's been pretty dormant in the space since 2006 as newer entrants have become more active.
Graphene may become a product so generic that no one company profits from it, even if it goes on to create enormous advances in technology and science that benefit us all. Because the development is so new, it's an exciting field that bears watching, but we would be wise to remember that there have been other scientific "miracles" that didn't pan out. Carbon nanotubes once held similar promise, but I have yet to see any space elevators being built just yet.
Fool contributor Rich Duprey owns shares of General Electric and Intel. The Motley Fool recommends Intel and owns shares of General Electric, GrafTech International, Intel, and IBM. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.