Every ten years or so, we go through a phase in the financial markets where advanced materials are “hot”. In the 1980’s, we had “Ceramic Fever” and the potential of super-efficient engines and high temperature superconductivity which was going to revolutionize all sorts of things – electrical transmission first and foremost. There were a number of companies that went public around that time – American Superconductor and Ceramic Process Systems just to name two – and raised significant amounts of capital to finance their research into the applications of these exciting new materials. There were big players making substantial investments in the space as well – Alcoa, DuPont, Corning, Dow, Englehard, GE, etc.
In the 1990’s, a wave of excitement surrounding new ways to make diamond and diamond-like nanocarbon emerged and companies like Crystallume rode that wave to successful IPOs while big players including Monsanto and Air Products invested in start-ups, putting these materials onto products as mundane as sunglasses and scanner windows.
Then came the first decade of 2000 and the promise of carbon nanotubes (remember the Space Elevator pictures?), buckyballs and other nanomaterials. There were hundreds of companies that came out of nowhere to pursue the commercial promise of these new materials – Nanosys, NanoDynamics, NanoOpto, NanoInk, Zyvex, Nanogate, and others – some of which are still around.
Here we are today, in 2014, and one of the most intriguing new topics in the scientific community is graphene – a two dimensional form of carbon with one of the most exciting intrinsic set of properties around. From electrical and thermal conductivity to strength and stiffness; graphene has them all! In the past six months, we’ve seen successful capital raises of over $100 million on the London Alternative Investment Market and the Toronto Venture Exchange. The companies pursuing this novel material range from pure start-ups and university spin-outs to established global players like Samsung, IBM, and Lockheed Martin.
If you look at all of the products we take for granted today – electronics, batteries, industrial machinery, sporting goods, medical instruments, telecommunications gear, cars, planes, military and defense systems, and even construction materials – they have all been dramatically and positively impacted by the innovations in advanced materials.
The take-away is that the progress that we can easily observe in the things we buy and use every day could not and would not have been achieved without these less-obvious advances in material science. It’s one of the most important areas of innovation but most of the time, it remains hidden from view. Those of us who have worked in the materials industry know that today’s discoveries won’t likely be in products for ten years or more, but that doesn’t make them less important or valuable. Or sexy.