Samsung Electronics Co.'s Galaxy S5 smartphone, left, and Apple Inc. iPhone 5c.
The main battleground between Samsung Electronics Co. and Apple Inc. in the global smartphone market is moving from courtrooms to the laboratory, amid a race for patents on atom-thick technology for the next generation of devices.
Graphene is sort of like the high-tech version of cling wrap. It’s a transparent material that conducts electricity so it can be stretched across glass surfaces of phones or tablets to make them into touch screens. Thinner, stronger and more flexible than current technology, it’s ideal for futuristic gadgets like bendable smartwatches or tablets that fold up into smartphones.
The potential has Samsung, Apple and Google Inc. (GOOG) amassing arsenals of graphene-related patents, in part because sales of so-called wearable computing devices is predicted to rise 14 fold in five years. Samsung, which this month lost a $120 million verdict to Apple, looks like the early leader in the race for intellectual property rights.
“We will someday see an era where mobile devices will truly become flexible, easily folded and unfolded, and that’s when we will need graphene,” said Claire Kim, a Seoul-based analyst at Daishin Securities Co. The first companies to commercialize graphene technology in mobile devices will have an advantage over the rest of the industry, she said.
Samsung has 405 published applications, according to a 2013 report from the U.K.’s Intellectual Property Office, which said the South Korean company appeared to be ahead of its rivals. In the U.S., Samsung has 38 patents and at least 17 applications using the word “graphene” in the summary of its invention, according to data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Apple, based in Cupertino, California, has at least two patent applications with the office related to the material. Companies from International Business Machines Corp. to Foxconn Technology Group have also registered graphene patents.
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 on the material, it was classified as two-dimensional.
The material is a single layer of graphite, involving tightly bonded atoms in a hexagonal lattice, making it strong and flexible. Along with its transparency and conductivity, that makes it ideal for bendable touchscreen displays.
For consumer electronics makers, the market potential is massive. Global sales of mobile devices may reach $847 billion by 2016, according to researcher Yankee Group. The market for wearable technologies will jump about 14-fold in five years to $19 billion, Hampshire, England-based wireless analysis company Juniper Research estimated in October.
To unlock that potential, the world’s biggest electronics makers are turning to researchers such as Hong Byung Hee, a professor at Seoul National University, who’s developed a patent for mass-producing graphene-based displays.
“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,” Hong said in an interview. “Our key graphene technology is receiving considerable interest from firms including Apple, Samsung and even Google.”
Hong says his Graphene Square Inc. has a patent that can make sheets of the material as large as 50 inches diagonally, about five times the length of an Apple iPad. The conductive film now most commonly used for mobile-device touch screens, indium tin oxide or ITO, is too brittle for bendable displays and isn’t durable or effective enough on devices larger than 10 inches, said Lee Sung Chul, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. in Seoul.
Hong’s patents are “key in making cost-efficient, large-scale graphene for touchscreen panels in mass volume,” said Whang Dong Mok, a professor at the School of Advanced Materials Science & Engineering at Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon, South Korea, who predicts wearable devices using the material may arrive on the market within five years.
Samsung declined to comment on its interest in Hong’s patent, as did Kristin Huguet, a spokeswoman for Apple, and Matt Kallman, a spokesman for Google. Huguet also declined to comment on the details of Apple’s research into graphene.
Graphene can be used in all three product categories where Suwon-based Samsung holds the largest global market share: smartphones, memory chips and TVs.
“It is more durable than steel and has high heat conductibility as well as flexibility, which makes it the perfect material for use in flexible displays, wearables and other next generation electronic devices,” Samsung said in an e-mailed statement.
The company, which on April 29 posted first-quarter profit that beat analyst estimates on demand for its Galaxy devices, began selling Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo smartwatches in 125 countries last month as it bets on growing sales of wearable devices.
Google started prototyping its Google Glass smart glasses in 2012 and held a one-day sale last month allowing consumers to buy them for $1,500. Apple is said to be readying a watch-like wearable device.
Graphene’s ability to conduct electricity about 100 times faster than silicon makes it valuable in other ways too. It could boost the speed of semiconductors, and researchers have applied the material to batteries, making possible a mobile phone that stays charged for a week and recharges in 15 minutes.
Last October, the European Commission announced a $1 billion, 10-year funding initiative for graphene research and development.
Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, the Galaxy maker’s research hub, said April 4 it has developed a method to commercialize the material in chips after teaming up with Sungkyunkwan University.
Hong, who owns 70 percent of Graphene Square, said he has no plans to sell his patents to the likes of Google or Apple, though he will license them. He’s seeking investments from companies to set up a manufacturing plant and advanced equipment to mass-produce graphene films for touchscreen panels.
Hong sees future uses of graphene including spacesuits and “smart” shoes and clothes featuring sensors, chips and displays. Its heat-dispersing qualities mean it could be worn by firefighters, he said.
Jiwoong Park, an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who heads a group of 10 researchers working on graphene technology, said other uses may include medical devices or space technology.
“Everything it does, it does really, really well,” Park said. “There are some dramatic and exciting opportunities.”