Is graphene really a wonder-material?

Graphene There are many potential applications for graphene

Graphene is a waste of money, a very senior British professor told me last year during a conversation about government funding for science.

It might be useful to a few applications, he complained, but graphene will never be revolutionary: the technology is too limited - it is interesting but not a game changer.

We were talking a few months after the Chancellor George Osborne had allocated £50m to graphene research.

The year before, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of Manchester University had won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their pioneering work on the "miracle material" and the funding was a vote of faith in an exciting new area of research. Another £11m followed just after Christmas.

Graphene is the name given to a novel substance composed of a single layer of carbon atoms, extracted from graphite, with astonishing properties: the stuff is stronger than diamond, more conductive than copper and more flexible than rubber.

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However amazing, more than £60m is a lot of money to pump into one particular area of science in an age of austerity”

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However amazing, more than £60m is a lot of money to pump into one particular area of science in an age of austerity and researchers in other subjects are always bound to quibble, at the very least.

In the clamour for funding, resentment is not unusual, particularly if the money appears to be aimed at one specific project rather than a whole field of fundamental research which may deliver far more in the long run.

The objection is to what could be called the Concorde syndrome: public money being hosed at a single project, in that case a supersonic passenger plane, admired for its beauty but limited in its possible uses.

Extraordinary possible range

But graphene is different and has caught the eye of the British government - and other governments and companies - precisely because its potential benefits reach into an extraordinary range of areas.

Rust Could graphene put an end to the problem of rust?

Even if it fails to deliver all that is promised for it in, say, electronics, it might still prove incredibly useful in others such as energy or medicine.

In a paper in Nature last year, Professor Novoselov and his colleagues outlined a "road map" for possible applications of graphene, exploring whether it could become "the next disruptive technology, replacing some of the currently used materials and leading to new markets?"

They acknowledge that many of the material's most exciting characteristics are only achieved with the highest-grade graphene and that industrial-scale techniques for making it have yet to be confirmed.

Still, they argue that a long list of applications is plausible.

Flexible electronic screens may emerge soonest, with the most appealing idea being "e-paper". A working prototype is expected by 2015, according to the Nature study, though the costs are still far too high for any marketable product at the moment.

The authors acknowledge that the established role of silicon will mean that graphene, which is not a semi-conductor, might not play a part in processors till after 2021.


Artist's impression of graphene sheet
  • Graphene is a form of carbon that exists as a sheet, one atom thick
  • Atoms are arranged into a two-dimensional honeycomb structure
  • Discovery of graphene announced in 2004 by the journal Science
  • About 100 times stronger than steel; conducts electricity better than copper
  • Touted as possible replacement for silicon in electronics
  • About 1% of graphene mixed into plastics could make them conductive

However, they say graphene is so thin that a "paint" could act as a rust protector or an "electronic ink" or be added to advanced composite materials to make them impermeable or conductive or stronger.

It could be used to enhance solar cells and to improve the working life of batteries, though a lot of technological barriers still remain.

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The price and hassle of switching to graphene need to make sense financially”

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As a material highly sensitive to the environment, graphene could act as a sensor with a single device measuring strain, gas, magnetism or pressure.

And its purity and large surface area make it suitable for medical uses too: from aiding drug delivery to building new tissue for regenerative medicine. However, the authors admit that the sheer number of hurdles mean this will not happen before 2030.

They recognize that "established benchmark materials will only be replaced if the properties of graphene, however appealing, can be translated into applications that are sufficiently competitive to justify the cost and disruption of changing…"

In other words, the price and hassle of switching to graphene need to make sense financially.

So, the paper argues, graphene's "full potential will only be realized in novel applications, which are designed specifically with this material in mind…"

What this means is that graphene is something of a gamble: to really make sense, people will have to dream up inventions for it.

The bottom line is that graphene is too good to be ignored and - in some applications - may yet prove to be too good to be true.

Thousands of patents

But a look at the statistics for patents - a key indicator of commercial intent - reveals how many countries and companies are prepared to throw the graphene dice.

From a standing start with the Manchester work in 2004, there are now more than 7,000 patents on graphene, with the largest number - more than 2000 - held by China. Samsung alone holds more than 400.

Massive investments on this scale can turn sour - plenty of promising technologies do flop.

But the greater the level of finance, energy and sheer brainpower devoted to graphene globally, the greater are the chances of exploiting it successfully.

The miracle material will soak up a lot of money but, taking a long view, it's unlikely that much will be wasted.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Yes, Graphene will live up to hype - just don't expect a wide range of top notch uses any time soon.....

    .....history shows us these things take time to develop into fully rounded, robust, useful products......

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Why don't we ignore the Chinese patents and clone the technology anyway? That seems to be the way the majority of Chinese businesses operate.

    People like Elon Musk have shunned the patent system because as he says, if you publish a patent, you give your corporate secrets away gift wrapped. If it's good, it will be cloned anyway. Make it hard for the thieves by not telling them how it's done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Agree with comment #3 by MSP1

    Nobody can say for certain what the potential for graphene is, and it is foolish to try. The scope is limitless at the moment and Britain should not miss the opportunity to lead from the front.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Problem with it's use is it doesn't turn off completely and what good is an on-off switch that can't do off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    People had better read the following article before they say no to funding.

    Carbon fiber is another field where the UK slipped up and look where this material is being these days and where it is being produced. This material and allowys that use advanced materials are the future of material science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Please, let's not get caught up with the number of patents = technical ability. A _lot_ of patents are in reality junk, the patent situation _is_ a joke, ask anyone from the science community. You would need to read the patents to have a true understanding. A patent on how to produce Graphine would be more worth then say one which simply says "I can do this with it".

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    So double the research budget, then everyone will be happy - won't they?

    It is true that research funding is going mostly to established 'trendy' tech, but investing tiny amounts of money in an area which _might_ have huge relevance seems worthwhile. There is no way at all that this particular package will be loss-making overall - we have a massive skills shortage in areas like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I must admit my own reaction was "so what ?" Lasers kicked around for nearly 40 years as "a solution looking for a problem" - till we realized they could allow us to do the internet, with fibre optics. Graphene could go somewhere too. But it smacks of yet another facet of humanity; our wonderful curiosity, falling second to the now deafening chant of "what's it worth in hard cash?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'm surprised one of the big chemical companies isn't pumping this kind of money into research. Perhaps they are although the rash of patent applications suggests if the tech ever does get commercial it will be bogged down by frivolous claims just like the phone and chip COs.

    As to this 'senior professor' - he'd probably have said the same thing about pumping money into developing the transistor

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    So China has 2204 patents and we have 54...and we invented it!

    Graphine research in the UK is criminally under funded.

    If we ever want to be a true economic power again, then this is our shot. The 60 million pounds of funding is still very small.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Is 'might' worth £50 million right now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    "Will graphene live up to the hype, asks David Shukman"

    What is the point of David Shukman asking questions that cannot be answered yet and that he is not qualified to discuss? Is it a slow news day so that he needs to make something up? There is far too much of this sort of thing on the BBC site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Flexible screen and e-paper? Funny I thought they existed already. Really the bbc tech reporting is so laughably behind it needs to start getting out there. Graphene is the new replacement for silicon allowing smaller components and removing what would have been a huge issue in chip manufacture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    " the stuff is stronger than diamond, more conductive than copper and more flexible than rubber."

    Not investing in graphene seems foolish. The billions pumped into the banks were wasted, it ended up boosting the financial sector - not the real economy. Stuff like graphene is real, it can lead to jobs and earn money. I want the govt to invest my taxes in real stuff, not the bleeding banks.


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