Graphene has long been touted as a material with near-miraculous properties. The incredibly tough, conductive, one-atom-thick carbon lattice offers promise for everything from electronics to bioengineering -- as well as energy storage.
According to Graphenano and its subsidiary Grabat Energy, that potential is about to be realized.
In recent media coverage, the Spain-based company claims that it will not only be offering “graphene polymer cells” by the summer, but that it will have perfected the industrial processes to produce large quantities of high-quality raw material.
Its promises are very bold.
According to CEO and President Martín Martínez, Graphenano is producing batteries with energy densities of 1,000 watt-hours per kilogram -- around five times that of current lithium-ion cells. A Tesla Model S equipped with these batteries would increase its range from 334 to 1,013 kilometers, he claimed.
Martínez also claimed that the new batteries are considerably lighter and safer than lithium-ion equivalents, saying researchers from TÜV Rhineland showed that the batteries are “not prone to explosions like lithium batteries.” What’s more, these revolutionary new batteries will retail at more or less the same price as their outmoded lithium-ion equivalents, he said.
Graphenano will be offering three types of batteries within months via its subsidiary, each composed of its graphene-based modular cells -- one for electric bicycles, another designed for motorbikes, and a third for stationary domestic storage.
Full production will be underway by October, with Grabat’s projected 200 employees producing 80 million cells per year at the company’s factory in Yecla in the Spanish region of Murcia.
The business has secured a fair amount of financial backing. Chinese electrical transmission and distribution company Chint has paid 18 million euros ($20 million) for a 10 percent stake in the company.
Martínez and one of China’s richest men, Nan Cunhui, attended the recent press launch -- along with Spain’s minister of industry. At the event, Martínez proudly displayed the company’s TÜV certification alongside impressive-looking battery prototypes and a well-produced corporate video.
Unsurprisingly, the Graphenano phenomenon has attracted plenty of media interest in Spain. Heavyweight national daily El Mundo ran an enthusiastic article on the company. Martínez has appeared on both local and national radio, expounding the merits of graphene-based energy storage and repeating his claims for his batteries.
But do these claims stand up to solid scrutiny?
Professor Andrea Ferrari, director of Cambridge University’s Graphene Center and chairman of the executive board of the European-Union-funded Graphene Flagship project, is skeptical of the batteries. But he does think it's possible for a company to be producing large quantities of graphene for use in them.
Although producing "true" monolayer graphene is still highly expensive, there are other less-tricky-to-prepare types of graphene -- such as platelets -- that could be manufactured cost-effectively.
Uncertainty surrounds the true nature of Graphenano’s cells, or what industrial technique the company is using to produce graphene. Although Martínez alluded to gas deposition onto a copper substrate in a radio interview, he claims this is just one technique employed by the company. Graphenano did not respond to a GTM request for clarification.
So is it credible that a company can be weeks away from utilizing graphene to produce a better battery commercially? And if so, how much better could that battery really be?
Jesús de la Fuente, founder and CEO of the respected Spanish graphene company Graphenea, confirmed that research is being carried out into replacing carbon black with graphene in lithium-ion battery electrodes. However, he said, this would only bring about modest improvements in battery performance.
The real breakthrough, explained de la Fuente, could be in so-called “post-lithium-ion” chemistries -- such as using graphene in the cathodes of lithium-sulfur cells. However, this type of technology is at least five years away from commercialization, he said. Anything even more innovative would likely be more than a decade away.
A number of influential blogs, such as Falacias Ecologistas, have been scathing in their assessment of the performance of Graphenano’s new batteries, using the Spanish expression "vendehúmos," or snake-oil salesman.
A senior figure in the graphene industry, speaking anonymously, pointed out that if such a revolutionary product were being produced, the company would be flourishing a sheaf of patents and white papers. Neither Graphenano or Grabat has publicly produced either.
“To make such a breakthrough, you would need a huge team of researchers -- at least a team of 100. This company says it has seven. There is no technical data and no support for their claims," said the source.
Furthermore, the TÜV certificate, proudly displayed at both the company’s media event and on its Facebook page, just seems to be the front page of a test report upon closer inspection.
María Buendía Bazán, a spokesperson with TÜV Rheinland’s Spanish marketing and communication department, said via email: “These companies are not certified by TÜV Rheinland.”
It is not impossible that Graphenano and Grabat could offer a groundbreaking product. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence -- and that evidence has not yet been produced.