Nation's graphene sector lacks high-end application, adequate funds
Graphene producer Shandong Leadernano Tech recently was awarded the world's first graphene material product certificate at an event held in Germany, the Xinhua News Agency reported over the weekend.
The award put the spotlight on China's fast-growing market in the research and application of graphene.
China's graphene industry, despite a rapid expansion in market value and rising numbers of patent applications in recent years, still lacks advanced market applications and systemic research due to a lack of funds, experts said on Sunday.
The opening of China's graphite ore mining sector, which produces the source of graphene, to foreign investors will reduce the raw material's cost and bolster the upstream graphene industry, they added.
Graphene is a new material with many uncommon properties. For one thing, it's the thinnest compound known at one atom thick, as well as the lightest and strongest material ever tested, making it a perfect fit for the high-technology industry.
In 2017, China's new material graphene sector "posted explosive growth" with technical patents surging rapidly, and the sector approached the level of commercialization, said a report issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
In 2017, 58 percent of the world's graphene patent applications were from China, exceeding the number from other countries, said another Xinhua report.
Wu Chenhui, a Beijing-based independent industry analyst, told the Global Times that the quick development of the country's graphene industry is being boosted mainly by "hot money" seeking short-term gains, as well as government policy.
The combination has led to overcapacity in the low-end downstream market and an absence in the advanced application market among Chinese companies.
The State Council, the country's cabinet, issued a guideline in March 2016, aiming to make graphene a forerunner industry for the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period.
However, compared with rivals in the EU, South Korea and the US such as IBM and Samsung, which have started to patent high-end applications for graphene in sectors including electronics, telecommunications and wearable devices, "Chinese companies are still focusing on the low-end market, where graphene is used as auxiliary material and coating to improve the performance of products," Liu Ronghua, CEO of graphene supplier Shimobang, told the Global Times on Sunday.
Wu agreed, using such examples as graphene underwear, graphene U-shaped pillows and graphene tires.
Experts further noted that most graphene-related applications in China involve products that can take shape within about three years, because domestic venture capital (VC) firms and small enterprises founded by university researchers eye short-time gains.
"High-end graphene products call for long-term investment and a huge injection of capital. This process also involves high risks, so VCs are reluctant to pour money in," Wu explained. "Lack of capital has been a major bottleneck hindering the industry."
Liu said China's new negative list released on Thursday, which lifted the limit on foreign investors' participation in graphite ore mining, will be a boon for the upstream graphene industry.
"The entry of foreign investors can provide alternative funding channels for domestic mining companies. Rising output will then reduce the raw material's price," Liu explained.
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