Samsung Electronics (005930:KS), the South Korean company that’s the world leader in smartphones, televisions, and memory chips, is stockpiling patents on graphene, a superthin touchscreen material that’s transparent, pliable, and conducts electricity. Stretched across the surface of a phone or a tablet, graphene can turn any device into a touchscreen—think of it as a high-tech version of cling wrap. “Everything it does, it does really, really well,” says Jiwoong Park, an associate professor at Cornell University who heads a group of 10 researchers working on graphene technology.
Thinner, stronger, and more flexible than materials now on the market, graphene is ideal for wearable devices like smartwatches and for tablets that can fold into the size of a smartphone. “We will someday see an era where mobile devices will truly become flexible—easily folded and unfolded—and that’s when we’ll need graphene,” says Claire Kim, a Seoul-based analyst at Daishin Securities. The first companies to commercialize graphene technology in mobile devices will have an advantage over the rest of the industry, she says.
Samsung looks like the early leader in the race. The company has hundreds of published applications for patents on the material worldwide, according to a 2013 report from the U.K.’s Intellectual Property Office. In the U.S., Samsung has 38 patents and at least 17 applications using the word graphene in its filings with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. While not all those requests may be granted, their volume is evidence of the company’s determination to find commercial uses for the material. Apple (AAPL) has filed at least two patent applications that mention graphene in the U.S. The U.K. report lists IBM (IBM), Xerox (XRX), Foxconn Industries, and Fujitsu (6702:JP) among other companies that have submitted applications.
Graphene is so thin that when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov from the University of Manchester won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their work with it, the material—composed of a single layer of graphite atoms tightly bonded into a hexagonal lattice—was classified as two-dimensional. Graphene’s commercial potential could be huge. Global sales of mobile devices are expected to reach $847 billion by 2016, according to researcher Yankee Group. Then there is the fledgling market for wearable technology, which Jupiter Research is forecasting will grow about 14-fold in five years, to $19 billion.
Hong Byung Hee, a professor at Seoul National University who’s patented technology that will allow for the mass production of graphene-based displays, says he’s had inquiries from Apple, Samsung, and Google (GOOG). (All three declined to comment on their interest in Hong’s research.) Says Hong: “Global technology companies are facing innovation limits in hardware and design, and in order to step over to the next level, they need to adopt new materials like graphene.”
The conductive film now most commonly used for mobile-device touchscreens, indium tin oxide or ITO, is too brittle for bendable displays and isn’t durable or effective enough for devices with screens bigger than about 10 inches. Hong says he’s patented a process that can make sheets of graphene as large as 50 inches diagonally, about five times the size of an Apple iPad. Whang Dongmok, a professor at the School of Advanced Materials Science & Engineering at Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon, South Korea, says Hong’s patents are “key in making cost-efficient, large-scale graphene for touchscreen panels in mass volume.” Whang predicts wearable devices using the material will arrive on the market within five years.
Graphene’s other attributes, including the ability to conduct electricity about 100 times faster than silicon, mean it’s likely to also wind up in memory chips and TVs—products in which Samsung is already dominant. The Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, the company’s research hub, said in early April that it has developed a method to incorporate the material into chips, in collaboration with Sungkyunkwan University. Korean researchers have also used it to make an experimental cell phone battery that can be recharged in just 15 minutes and retains the charge for a week.
Hong says he has no plans to sell his patents, though he’s willing to license them. He’s seeking investment to set up a manufacturing plant and advanced equipment to mass-produce graphene films for touchscreen panels. Hong anticipates that some of the future uses of graphene will include “smart” clothing featuring sensors, chips, and displays. He says its heat-dispersing qualities mean it is also an ideal material for space suits and gear worn by firefighters.