Britain is investing £60m in developing graphene. But are our businesses already falling behind in the race to exploit it, asks Rebecca Clancy.
It is lighter than a feather, stronger than steel, yet incredibly flexible and more conductive than copper. It has been hailed as “the miracle material”, its possible uses apparently almost endless.
The material is graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms forming a regular hexagonal pattern, extracted from graphite, with astonishing properties and impressive potential.
Unbreakable, foldable touch screens for mobile phones; a revolution in how drugs are administered; protective coating for everything from food packaging to wind turbines, faster computer chips and broadband; batteries of infinitely higher capacity than today’s – these are just a few of graphene’s possibilities.
Imagine a supermarket where you could wheel your trolley between two sensors that would scan every product immediately and give you your final bill in the blink of an eye. Graphene, it is claimed, could make this a reality.
“Graphene has lots of amazing properties and each one has led to suggestions of an application. Some are likely in a few years, while others will be quite far into the future.” The most likely to arrive first will be flexible electronic screens, which can be used on mobile phones, for example. A working prototype is expected in the next two years.
“We are starting from a pretty cheap base,” he said. “The main thing now is to combine cheapness with precision.”
Prof Derby said there would always be issues with printing, but as these issues were known it was possible to control the quality. “If there are any problems, we can send it off to be cleaned,” he said.
The favoured method for making graphene is to “grow” it at 900C using a chemical vapour deposition (CVD) machine, as used in Dr Belle’s lab and by American tech giant IBM in its research.
Inside a CVD machine
It requires carbon to be vaporised, and then the atoms are encouraged to form on another material, usually copper.
Graphene was first isolated in 2004 by two University of Manchester scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who were awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 2010 and later knighted.
Graphene is seen as such a game-changer that the Government has allocated more than £60m to study the material and the University of Manchester was given a £23m grant from the European Regional Development Fund, believed to be the largest so far awarded.
A National Graphene Institute is currently under construction at the university and the £61m building, which is in sight of the lab where the one-atom-thick material was originally isolated, is due to open in the spring of 2015.
Cambridge University is also building its own graphene centre, at a cost of £8m-£10m, which it has funded itself and aims to have open by the end of next year.
But the UK has been accused of falling behind in the global race to harness the potential of this remarkable material.
A look at the number of patents already filed around the world shows just how competitive the race has become.
China leads the way with more than 2,200 patents, according to British patent consultancy, CambridgeIP. The US comes in second with more than 1,700 patents, while South Korea has just under 1,200. The UK trails quite some way behind, with little more than 50 patents.
“The picture is more complex than mere number counting suggests. Not all of the patents necessarily equal real business opportunities,” argues Clive Rowland, chief executive at Manchester University’s Innovation Group.
“Much of the early work on graphene was – and still is – for electronic and related applications. So much of the patenting activity has been by electronics firms, which reflects that industry’s structure and geography – predominantly in the Far East and the US.”
South Korean electronics giant Samsung leads the corporate field with more than 400 patents. But, while it is pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into graphene research, it has so far remained secretive about its precise plans.
America’s IBM is in second place, with nearly 150 patents. Wilfried Haensch, senior research scientist at IBM, told The Daily Telegraph that graphene was still in the “fundamental research stage”.
But one company, Head, is already using graphene. It has used graphene in the tennis racquets that it provides to Novak Djokovic, the world’s number one tennis player, and former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova.
Novac Djokovic’s tennis racket uses graphene. Photo: Reuters
Head has revealed very little detail as to how the graphene is used or even how much is in the racquet. Dr Belle said it was likely that the middle of the racquet’s handle is lined with graphene, instead of graphite, as it is stronger and lighter.
But it is not just about graphene any more. Focus has turned towards combining graphene with other materials.
In a paper for Nature, Sir Andre Geim said this new research field was “going to be as big as graphene itself”.
“It is already clear that graphene combined with other atomically-thin materials shows properties better or different from its own,” he said.
“Because of the amount of possibilities of combining these graphene-like materials together is practically unlimited, there must be new materials with unique properties no one has even dreamed of as yet. We are spoiled for choice.” However, Dr Irina Grigorieva, who works alongside the Nobel laureates at Manchester University, said graphene “remained the best and it is unlikely anything will beat it”.
“It really has an exceptional combination of properties – strongest, thinnest, most thermally conductive and so on,” she said.
“Some materials can beat it in certain aspects but it will only be one or two of its properties. Graphene remains unique and has a fantastic range of properties.”
She also noted that it was possible to modify graphene to bring about properties that it does not naturally have, such as magnetism.
While graphene’s full potential in the commercial world is still unknown, as ideas turn into practical solutions British companies are being warned that they risk being left behind in the global race to harness this “miracle material”.
Mr Rowland warns that the window of opportunity could narrow as graphene’s potential becomes clearer and has urged British firms to increase their knowledge of two-dimensional materials.
“For Britain to be successful, graphene will need to be treated as a project on a very large scale,” he said.
“To keep themselves in the picture, British firms should invest now in long-range R&D, and engage in university research partnerships and collaborative projects.”