2010 saw Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester win the Nobel Prize for Physics as a result of their breakthrough with this ‘wonder’ material, which is stronger than diamond, highly conductive and exceedingly flexible.
Since its discovery, graphene has been seen to have great potential for many different areas of technological innovation. There are high hopes that one day it will be a replacement for silicon as the material for transistors in electronics. Silicon based components at the moment are constrained due to the relatively large size at which they are produced, but graphene could allow computer chips to be miniaturised.
Transparency, strength, conductivity and the substance’s flexible and stable nature means that graphene has immense potential in the development of touch screens. Other theoretical uses include enhancement of solar cells, aiding drug delivery and building new tissue in medicine.
Given this commercial potential, in October 2011, the UK government pledged £50m towards researching graphene related technologies. In December 2012, £21.5m was bestowed upon British universities with particularly promising graphene projects, for example Imperial College London, Durham, Manchester and Cambridge, which is currently working on a flexible screen. These universities are also partnered with many industrial companies.
This large, yet largely untapped commercial potential also means that a lot of this research is going overseas. Recent figures reveal that since 2007 there has been a hefty rise in the numbers of graphene related patents and patent applications worldwide, proving that the race to develop these technologies is well and truly afoot.
The Chinese have the highest number of patent publications, with 2,204, clearly showing that the country intends on being a forerunner in the business. Individually, the South Korean company Samsung has 407. In stark contrast, the UK is in possession of only 54.
Andre Geim noted that many Western companies are concerned about the actions of their competitors, but lacking the ability to undertake the level of research they desire. Perhaps Britain is not seeing the value in the development of graphene, or is simply slipping behind in the race for business supremacy in this area?
Whilst a great challenge, it is not too late for the UK to step up. When the European Commission soon announces the winners of a one billion euro prize for scientific research, for which the ‘Graphene Flagship’ consortium is a contender, this area of could get a well needed boost.