Is China still leading the graphene race?

Much attention has been given to the number of patent applications filed around the world for graphene technology as an indicator of progress being made in the field by different countries. It has been reported that China holds the largest number of patents on graphene. Now the latest research from Fullerex which reveals the number of active graphene producers in each country, also puts China on top.

As competition to exploit the "wonder material" has intensified around the world, detailed reports have so far been published which set out an in-depth depiction of the global patent landscape for graphene, notably from CambridgeIP and the UK Intellectual Property Office, in 2013 and 2015 respectively. Ostensibly the number of patents and patent applications both indicated that China was leading the innovation in graphene technology. However, on closer inspection it became less clear as to how closely the patent figures themselves reflect actual progress and whether this will translate into real economic impact. Some of the main reasons to be doubtful included:

  • - 98% of the Chinese patent applications only cover China, so therefore have no worldwide monopoly.
  • - A large number of the Chinese patents are filed in December, possibly due to demand to meet patent quotas. The implication being that the patent filings follow a politically driven agenda, rather than a purely innovation or commercially driven agenda.
  • - In general, inventors could be more likely to file for patent protection in some countries rather than others e.g. for tax purposes. Which therefore does not give a truly accurate picture of where all the actual research activity is based.
  • - Measuring the proportion of graphene related patents to overall patents is more indicative of graphene specialisation, which shows that Singapore has the largest proportion of graphene patents, followed by China, then South Korea.

(Intellectual Property Office, 2015), (Ellis, 2015), (CambridgeIP, 2013)

So, the patent figures alone do not provide us with a completely clear indication of a country's strength in the field of graphene.

But what about comparing graphene activity in each country in terms of production?

Following the recent launch of the latest edition of the Bulk Graphene Pricing Report, which is available exclusively through The Graphene Council, Fullerex has updated its comprehensive list of graphene producers worldwide, and below is a summary of the number of graphene producers by country in 2017.

The total number of graphene producers identified is 142, across 27 countries. This research expands upon previous surveys of the graphene industry, such as the big data analysis performed by Nesta in 2015 (Shapira, 2015). The study by Nesta revealed 65 producers throughout 16 countries but was unable to glean accurate data on producers in Asia, particularly China.

As we can now see however from the data collected by Fullerex, China has the largest number of graphene producers, followed by the USA, and then the UK.
In addition to having more companies active in the production and sale of graphene than any other country, China also holds about 2/3rds of the global production capacity, according to Fullerex.

Worldwide Producers Summary Table

But does domestic capacity to supply graphene hold significance as an indicator of progress in the global graphene race? Here are three main considerations worth exploring:

1). It's about developing applications, not just making graphene.
Although it is growing fast, as there is not a particularly big market for buying the material right now, what does activity in graphene production indicate? The investment in the production of graphene can only be justified by the expectation of commercial applications, otherwise there can be no return on capital.
It is sensible to assume that the production process is a critical factor to commercialisation. Specifically, this is important in achieving a low cost, scalable, processable, consistent quality product. Therefore, having healthy competition within a nation's producer base, with a multitude of graphene producers drawing upon unique production techniques and methods, will generate a higher chance for success among that country's graphene industry. Particularly where those graphene products from the producers also collectively target a wide range of applications, as this will engender a strong network of industry engagement in various sectors, building multiple separate value chains.
Furthermore, Fullerex has identified that approximately 1/3rd of all producers are not only producing graphene, but also nano-intermediates (value-added goods) which are ready-to-use, application-specific products. Due to the market being at an early stage, with many suppliers and very few repeat commercial customers, this situation of vertical market failure, which is common for new material technologies, is driving the need for product demonstrators to come from graphene producers themselves as many potential customers hold off on applications development until they see a clear advantage with the technology. So, activity in the producer base is at least partly reflective of innovations and development of applications in the market.
However, for the full picture, we need to look specifically at what is happening with potential customer engagement, as we should expect to find most applications developers in industry, across sectors. This is where innovation must also occur, for the market to grow. The China Internet Information Centre sent out a press release in August 2016 claiming that the country now has 500 companies specialising in graphene-related products (manufacturers of goods containing graphene), believing that much of its success is down to participation of SMEs (The China Internet Information Centre, 2016).
How this industry engagement compares with the rest of the world remains unclear.

2). Relative numbers may be more useful than the absolute figures.
As with the patent landscape, rather than looking at the absolute figures, we can review the numbers in relative terms. For instance, if we normalise to account for the differences in the size of each country, by looking at the number of producers as a proportion of GDP, we see the following: Spain (7.18), UK (4.48), India (3.73), China (3.57), Canada (3.28), USA (1.79) (United Nations, 2013).
Unsurprisingly, each leading country has a national strategy for economic development which involves graphene prominently.
For instance, The Spanish Council for Scientific Research has lent 9 of its institutes along with 10 universities and other public R&D labs involved in coordinating graphene projects with industry.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada has placed graphene as one of five research topics in its target area of "Advanced Manufacturing" for Strategic Partnership Grants.
The UK government highlights advanced materials as one of its Eight Great Technologies, within which graphene is a major part of, having received investment for the NGI and GEIC buildings, along with EPSRC and Innovate UK projects. I wrote previously about the UK punching above its weight in terms of research, ( ) but that R&D spending relative to GDP was too low compared to other developed nations. It is good to see that investment into graphene production in the UK is bucking that trend, and we should anticipate this will provide a positive economic outcome.

3). Quality, not quantity.
It is hard to determine accurately how much of the global production capacity is currently being utilised. Nameplate capacity figures are easier to obtain than actual sales volumes. The strategy for some graphene companies such as Hengli Sheng Tai (Xiamen) graphene Technology Company Limited appears to be increasing capacity to reduce costs and attract customers, rather than increasing production to accommodate existing demand (People's Daily Online, 2016) . So much of the supply availability may well be underutilised.
In addition, as there are no industry-wide quality standards, it is difficult to say whether a graphene product is objectively of good quality. At this stage, the most important measure for a customer is that they are obtaining a cost-benefit to using graphene and that the supply is consistent. This will lead to successful commercial trade in the material. Neither of these factors can be ascertained simply by looking at the production quantities worldwide.

With these caveats in mind, it is nonetheless revealing to look beyond the university and patent landscape and to see the impact in the technology space from the factories for graphene production that are forming around the industrial centres of the world. The next stage in the journey is the emergence of successful applications and graphene-containing products as the market takes shape. We have already seen the launch of niche, high-value, low-volume products but the larger, mainstream commercial uses could be just around the corner. The new research report by Fullerex helps to identify where these opportunities will arise by highlighting key markets and price points where graphene can compete. To find out more and to order your copy, click here.

CambridgeIP. (2013, February 14). Patenting Flatland: Graphene - University Impacts in an Early-Stage Technology Space. Ellis, J. (2015, March 27). China's lead in graphene patents will count for little if it does not result in products that come to market. Retrieved from IAM: Intellectual Property Office. (2015). Graphene The Worldwide Patent Landscape in 2015. UK Intellectual Property Office Informatics Team. People's Daily Online. (2016, September 8). Super material' graphene begins mass production in Chinese mainland. Retrieved from People's Daily Online: Shapira, G. a. (2015). Graphene Research and Enterprise: Mapping innovation and business growth in a strategic emerging technology - See more at: . The China Internet Information Centre. (2016, August 23). China Focus: Graphene industry gathers pace in China. Retrieved from United Nations. (2013).