Another post I wrote for Materials Today. Originally appeared here: http://www.materialstoday.com/blog/2013/1/25/the-best-thing-since-sliced-carbon-laurie-winkless/778.aspx
Graphene first hit the headlines when two Manchester scientists – Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov – won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on it. Since the Nobel Prize, the UK government is estimated to have allocated £60 million of funding for this field, but despite this, there are concerns that the UK is being left behind in the graphene race.
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms, bound together in a regular hexagonal pattern. It can be extracted from graphite (or ‘pencil lead’), but has incredible properties: it is transparent, stronger than diamond, more conductive than copper and more flexible than rubber – so it promises a lot.
Of the 7000 patents currently held on graphene, only 54 of them are held by UK institutes, with the bulk (2204 of them) being held by China. Samsung alone holds 400 – it aims to use graphene in flexible touchscreens, which they claim could lead to ultra-thin foldable tablet devices, within 3 -5 years.
A large volume of patents may not equal high-quality, and the UK’s strong reputation levels the playing field somewhat, but IP experts have suggested that global competitors may be making a “land grab for areas of the graphene patent landscape”; this move could seriously limit the scope of graphene research which can be freely carried out here.
Graphene scientists quote its many potential applications, but its role in electronics seems to have caught the imagination. A transistor made from graphene could demonstrate ballistic transport at room temperature – the Holy Grail for electronics. Ballistic transport occurs when the electrons avoid collisions inside the material, leading to an almost uninterrupted flow of current. With standard silicon-based technology approaching its fundamental limits, graphene may be a potential successor.
Graphene is not the first material to be surrounded by hype, and it certainly won’t be the last. But its future is unlikely to be determined by the just patents or publications. Instead, the bottleneck to mass adoption will be its ability to be scaled-up. Graphene research is still very new, and despite a lot of investment, only the tip of the iceberg has been uncovered. Its electrical and mechanical properties may be unparalleled, but as yet, no realistic industrial-scale production techniques have been established. Until graphene can be manufactured, extracted and manipulated easily and at low cost, this wonder material may remain firmly in lab.