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 34.

    and don't get me started on 'Quantum Computing' !

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Let's not bother doing any more research. Waste of money. Where did science ever get us anyway? Now where's my pencil and paper?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    This is a great British product....BUT giving the rights away???? I can't imagine the Chinese being so noble. That decision will cost this country JOBS.
    It would have been much more sensible to have given this to British companies for the next 5 years ...then given it away to the rest of the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I'm sadly quite cynical about this.

    Let's just assume the scenario that tax-payer funding is used to make UK the world leader in this technology. A UK company leads the way, mass-producing products in Chinese factories, making billions in profits, paying little in corporate tax.

    How is that any better than the US, Korea or China being the world leader in the technology?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    STRONGER than diamond? Surely, you mean harder. Diamonds can actually shatter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Bah! Humbug! The Professor said, Man will never set foot on the moon!
    Bah! Humbug! The Professor said, ten years before man set a first foot on the moon.

    Bah! Humbug! Another Professor says, Graphene amounts to nothing!
    He hasn't seen my ideas for Graphene and the revolution to-come...

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    The jet engine, Hovercraft, etc etc, sound familiar ? We as a country are not interested in making anything, only science for the sake of it..
    Only James Dyson shows the way, and he patents everything.
    Graphene may well turn out to be un commercial, but let's protect our discoveries or the US and others will show us how........again!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.


    But there still needs to be proper investment to find the true potential which should be concentrated in 1 or 2 places rather than spread about too thinly. And £50m is too little - compare to Olympic athlete funding.
    I can't argue how the dosh is allocated. But I know I want my taxes invested in the real economy not the banks nor sports days. And yes, it's too little.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Graphene is not a technology, it is a material with properties that may find their way into technologies. Only time will tell.
    Without other similar materials with which to make layers, like an atomic scale Kevlar, or with which to dope it, creating atom sized holes, its applicability to engineering and manufacturing is likely to remain work in progress. Multiple layers of graphene is graphite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    “£60m is a lot of money to pump into one particular area of science”

    Is it?
    Compared to £3.5 billion a year to the BBC, which returns about zero on the investment

    Davis Shukman seems to gloss over the fact that £60 million is an investment with a chance of paying back many times that

    He ignore the difference between spending money and investing it

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The nature of any R&D program is exactly that - it is Researched and Developed to discover what future uses it can have. Anything that is developed for a single purpose will inevitably find other purposes as part of the R&D. To try and determine the worth of an investment at its outset is pointless.
    The Apollo program put more than $10 back into the US economy for every $1 that was invested...

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    16. fuzzy
    True re transistors but easy got round

    With graphene the lack of band gap which is good fro some applications is not for efficient logic circuitry even with doping.

    But there still needs to be proper investment to find the true potential which should be concentrated in 1 or 2 places rather than spread about too thinly. And £50m is too little - compare to Olympic athlete funding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    This British Graphene ''success story'' is sadly illusory. The trend is that the UK are rapidly lagging behind the rest of the world in R&D and patents.

    The real story here is how the rest of the Europe are already massively pooling scientific R&D funding and resources. Our ''island mentality'' will ultimately render our major educational and scientific establishments evermore irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    #17 Does sheer number of patents count for anything? Personally I'd look at what each patent actually covers. A patent for a graphene coated tooth brush is worth a lot less than a patent for a graphene lap top screen.

    One patent can cover multiple applications but equally you may need multiple patents for the same application for global protection.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.


    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.
    Patents are a conundrum. Nowadays they seem to benefit only the lawyers. Perhaps it's time to scrap them, as they no longer serve their original purpose.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Graphine is a very exciting material, however the money should be distributed to researching all the technologies required for it to reach it's potential. Things like spintronics and advancing solid state magnetism will be fundamental in constructing advanced devices, giving such a funding bias to graphine is like baking a cake with 6 eggs and half a mug of flour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    So another invention from this country is underfunded we have lost our way in all senses for somthing that is stronger than diamond, more conductive than copper and more flexible than rubber is now being patented by china over 2000 and Samsung 400 and for the £60m we have only 54 ,
    I suppose the banks did not like backing a real product.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.


    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.
    As I remember, transistors couldn't do full off either, but they launched the computer revolution all the same. Getting it to do what you want is the clever bit, this is just the base to launch from.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    If government money goes into development does it take a cut of any patented profitable products? No... public cost private profit is the rule of our society. If it fails we bear the cost, if it succeeds a private company takes control of the whole remainder of the process - they decide what it will be used for, how much to charge and how much profit they want.


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