Graphene, the new atom thick material with the potential to revolutionise our lives. Discovered in Britain and studied extensively by leading academics, you’d think that we’d be in the vanguard of any new world order. Unfortunately, if we’re not careful, the UK is going to lose yet another golden egg to foreign competitors.
For those who were unable to attend last week’s enlightening talk organised by Cambridge Network, graphene is something of wonder material. A single 2D layer of graphite, it has a cavalcade of exceptional properties that mark it as an incredible prospect. It is super conductive, absorbs all aspects of the light spectrum and it’s tougher than diamond yet remains remarkably stretchable.
It therefore has a wide variety of potential commercial applications. Graphene is being touted variably as a solution to photovoltaic problems, to tackling Indium hoarding by China by revolutionising computer screen technology as well as significantly upgrading the quality and speed of computer chips. So far, so incredible.
Crucially, the prospects for turning academic research of graphene’s near ludicrous properties into a commercial reality seem to be rather strong. Whilst Professor Andrea Ferrari from the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University was incredibly keen to cite a number of similar breakthroughs that have so far failed to make the commercial grade (such as nanotubing), the ‘cling film’ nature of graphene lends itself to exploiting existing technologies for the production of ‘diamond-like carbon’, a key coating for plastic bottles, razors and hard drive disks.
The result is that the methods used to create graphene are already tried and tested, allowing increasing amounts of the material to be successfully created. From its 2004 discovery when University of Manchester researchers were creating nanometres of the stuff using sticky tape and pencil shavings, graphene sheets are now being produced that are up to a metre in length.
There are even liquid versions of the material that can be produced using reel to reel printing to potentially create batteries, screens and solar cells that are paper thin and nigh on indestructible.
Yet the good news is tempered somewhat by the fact that, despite this being a home grown technological success, the fruits of the labour are beginning to be harvested elsewhere.
Although Britain and Europe would seem like a logical place to exploit the success of the material, patent distribution according to Quentin Tannock of CambridgeIP suggests that, between 2007 and 2011, European patents accounted for just eight per cent of an increasing market whilst China accelerated its share from one per cent to 11 per cent.
Furthermore, a single Korean company, tech giant Samsung, accounted for the lion’s share of global graphene patents with 134 drawn mostly from their sponsorship of Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea.
As a result, their research remains ahead of the game. Whilst at Cabume we have touched on how Nokia has integrated graphene into its own Morph phone project and its creation of a protective nanotech phone shield, Samsung has actively advertised a graphene phone as the future of Samsung’s devices on South Korean television.
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Furthermore, according to Professor Ferrari, they are bullishly suggesting that they could have a working graphene smartphone cum tablet cum wrist watch device by the end of 2012, exceeding estimates for the material’s successful commercialisation by at least a few years.
And the reason that we’re falling behind as a continent is simply a lack of investment up to now. Whilst George Osborne proudly announced last year £50m of investment into graphene research – which has inevitably been diced into smaller chunks – the South Korean government has invested $200m, beating the amount actually spent on graphene by the UK government so far at least twenty times over.
Larger amounts of public-sourced investment are expected from South Korea and while Osborne’s money hasn’t even begun to be spent yet according to Professor Ferrari, he says Samsung has added another $200m in South Korean spend.
Even more ironically, the successful commercialisation of test samples of graphene by the University of Manchester’s spin off company, Graphene Industries, has been vital to the Korean manufacturers exploration of the material. Not only has British research given international corporations the ideas to build upon, they’re also giving them the resources to direct the benefits away from Europe.
So how do we stop this? The route the British Monarchy took in the 1500s when they discovered graphite had use as gunpowder and restricted its trade completely is not open to us.
But the government can involve itself more in assisting the development of graphene in this country and in Europe by backing it with the cash it needs. The EU Flagship project – explained in detail by Marc Bailey – promising one billion Euros over 10 years to the development of graphene from creation to commercialisation is an incredibly welcome step.
But for Britain to benefit further, it’s internal investment in pioneering research at leading universities that could produce actual results and Prof Ferrari is pushing for more investment here.
“It’s a pity the UK has not recognised this until now,” said Ferrari. “The government has made a great start, but it needs to multiply its spend by a factor of at least four or five to match South Korea.”
Some may say the £50m already promised to the graphene industry is generous enough, the government is after all in the middle of a massive cost-saving strategy to deal with national debt. However, Professor Ferrari points to South Korea’s position in the world economic standings where it sits well below the UK. “The UK is a much stronger economy than South Korea, which isn’t in the G8. I think it can afford it.”
Like Samsung, UK industry also has a role to play and, because of graphene’s far-reaching potential, Prof Ferrari says the door is wide open with pretty much anybody standing to benefit such as automotive, aerospace, mobile and electronics, but it is government he stresses needs to be involved.
Over a week ago a memo from business secretary, Vince Cable, criticised the UK for failing to articulate a long term industrial policy that will benefit the country based on investment within key growth industries such as technological development. Graphene, it seems, is ripe for success – will the Chancellor recognise that in this week’s budget?
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