Scientist who won Nobel for studying wonder material graphene says £50m government investment will reap dividends for UK
Last year a team from the University of Manchester won the Nobel prize for physics for isolating and measuring the properties of graphene.
A year on, the government has woken up to the potential of a substance – a sheet of carbon atoms one atom thick – which scientists and engineers say could make everything from touchscreens to plastics cheaper and more efficient.
George Osborne this week announced an investment of £50m to create a research hub to support the commercialisation of the wonder material, the aim being to manufacture products in the UK.
“It’s the strongest, thinnest, best conducting material known to science, to be used in everything from aircraft wings to microchips,” said Osborne in his speech to the Conservative party conference on Monday. “We will fund a national research programme that will take this Nobel prize-winning discovery from the British laboratory to the British factory floor.”
Konstantin Novoselov, who won the Nobel prize with his Manchester colleague Andre Geim, said the £50m investment was a “smart move” that, if spent wisely, would reap economic dividends and turn the UK into an attractive location for the world’s best graphene researchers.
Graphene is a sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice. Billions of layers of graphene stacked on top of each other make up crystals of the more familiar graphite, used in pencil leads.
But graphene’s simple structure belies its unmatched electronic and physical properties. It conducts electricity a million times better than copper and is more transparent to visible light than any other known conductor. It is also stronger than all other conductors, and more stretchable.
It is expected to draw the attention of the world’s biggest manufacturers. Samsung has produced graphene sheets the size of a large television while a flexible touchscreen has been produced by Rice University researchers in Texas. Airbus drew gasps at the Paris air show with its futuristic plane, which featured transparent cabin wall membranes that allow passengers panoramic views and which could possibly be made from graphene.
What has really pushed up excitement levels about graphene is its combination of conductivity, strength and transparency in a single material. Novoselov and Geim’s deceptively simple experiments to isolate the material in 2004 started after they watched colleagues who were studying crystals of graphite. These scientists would use sticky tape to peel a layer off the top of the graphite and use powerful microscopes to study the surface of the crystal beneath. Instead of looking at the crystal, Novoselov picked up one of the used pieces of tape which would normally have been thrown away.
They then started their own experiments with graphite and tape.
“You just press it against the graphite, peel it off and there is a thin layer of graphite left on the tape. Usually it’s many atoms thick and you have to continually peel more,” he said. “Honestly, we never thought we can get into monolayers. Many people thought it would be unstable and that you cannot get it all.”
Scientists knew about graphene before Novoselov and Geim carried out their experiments, but no one believed that a single layer could be isolated and studied or electronic devices made from it. Other scientists were so sceptical about Geim and Novoselov’s research paper, containing the results of the experiments that would later win them a Nobel prize, that it was rejected by a scientific journal. The paper subsequently appeared in the top US journal Science.
The first applications of graphene are likely to be replacements for rare or less efficient materials in electronics. LCD screens, for example, could use a coating of graphene instead of indium tin oxide, which is expensive, to conduct electricity across their surface. Graphene could replace less efficient electrical conductors such as copper and gallium arsenide in the interconnectors and transistors of integrated circuits. “For the future, it would be really nice to see an application where all those properties are used together,” said Novoselov. “It’s strong, it’s flexible, you can make flexible electronics which are very robust.”
Funding for the £50m hub comes at a critical time in the development of the material, which has sparked global interest. David Bott, director of innovation programmes at the Technology Strategy Board, one of the government agencies tasked with coming up with a business plan, said that the money showed the government’s belief in hi-tech growth. “They’re trying to find ways of linking up cutting-edge science with cutting-edge commercial products and making sure the path from one to the other is as short as possible. You can’t fault their logic or aspirations.”
Graphene was already on the Technology Strategy Board’s longlist of emerging technologies, and Bott said it would have become a priority within the next year in any case, but the attention from the Treasury will move the process forward more quickly. “The idea of this hub is to try and find a way of linking up the science that goes on around the UK and the burgeoning small electronics and experimental materials companies that are around so that we can move it as quickly as possible,” said Bott.
Exactly how the money will be distributed will be agreed between the board, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Treasury. There is no guarantee money will go to the University of Manchester, despite its pre-eminence in the field.
Novoselov is clear that the only way the hub will work is if the cash is not spread too thinly. “Giving £1m here and there won’t make a difference. It makes every single researcher happy but it won’t make a statement in terms of commercialisation and applications.”
In particular, he hopes the money will re-energise the relationship between academics and industry in the UK, which he says has been declining in the past two decades as companies pull out of research and development. “We urgently need to bridge this gap somehow and it’s not clear how. In the US, they have this culture of spin-off companies, which doesn’t exactly exist in the UK.”
A research hub would make a suitably strong statement of intent by the government that it was interested in technology and that the UK was a good place to invest further, said Novoselov.
Technology companies, students and professors are attracted to research institutions with world-class reputations in their fields. In the US that includes places such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
In Europe, Cambridge University and the Max Planck Institutes are also highly attractive. Novoselov says that the government could create an equally attractive graphene research hub in the UK with its latest investment, which could recruit the best senior scientists from around the world.
“It’s a smart move putting money into technology. It will have a better chance of driving the economy forwards rather than investing into small bits and pieces like road repair or anything else. With technology you invest for the future and it will return many-fold rather than if you invest into other small or immediate things.”