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.

Graphene

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
    -4

    Comment number 54.

    Can we make plastic bags out of it? Because we always need more plastic.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 53.

    If it can be produced in large quantities economically, then it could actually help reduce our Carbon (no pun intended) footprint. A tough, highly conductive material would reduce the losses inherent in our power distribution system. Less waste in distribution = less power needed to be generated in the first place.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 52.

    I've learned recently that GPS technology uses Einstein's relativity theory since time aboard GPS satellite runs slower than on earth (Because satellite travel faster at 35,786 km altitude than me in my car on the earth surface). Who would have guessed in 1905 that Einstein's work would be used in such a practical application ? Same thing for graphene ! Nobody knows where it will take us . Amen !

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 51.

    I think your square ball galileo views are not needed dave , too many shukmans make for static worlds , jackson b

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 50.

    I'm no scientist and I find it amazing I should agree about anything with Osborne but surely this is exactly the kind of research UK ought to be backing and supporting. This govt has done plenty to ruin our HE sector, especially its research base and capacity and I'm sure there are many other projects that equally deserve decent funding but Iet the graphen research continue.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 49.

    The drugs industry has great capacity to invent but successive governments and pressure groups have made the safety hurdles, NHS politics, and the morality of making a profit out of illness such issues that invention is stifled.
    NICE/NHS take years to approve while the patent clock tick away until the cheap copies are allowed. So why invent? Meanwhile the drug industry redundancies are huge.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 48.

    Lasers..., whoops I mean LASERs.

    Now there was an invention which served no purpose at the time. It's not as though we use them in everyday life and the acrnoym has now become a proper word in the dictionary.

    Science is about the learnings you make whilst getting there, not the end product itself.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 47.

    The wealth of the nation is going to be poured into propping up the balance sheets of reckless criminal banks for the next decade. UK industry is merely a target for City ramraiding - so foreign firms who get their capital other ways succeed here with UK designers &workforces

    Industry is massively more important to this country than financial services, but run by people with the wrong accent

    .

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 46.

    Laughingdevil, you beat me to it! and this is the reason there is no longer any innovation in the UK, large companies are buying and selling patents in key technology and in concepts (rather than developed marketable items), which they can use to claim partial or total ownership of technology. If you are a small inventor, don't even bother wasting your money on a patent, you will never keep it!

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 45.

    Well £60M is something (which is better than nothing) but..

    Imagine how much it could have been without having to pay twice for the west coast main line bidders (+£40M).. or.. [endless list of money wasted]

    Whilst they're at it with the research, can they find a substance that stops us wasting so much money - unobtanium !

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 44.

    #23 An Australian reserch group found recently the if you're doping it with molybdenum oxides it looks a bit better than doped silicon

    In any case we should be putting more into research in all branches without a focus on what will make money, and trusting to the engineers and end users to find problems for the new techs to solve

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 43.

    Graphene is the warm-up act.

    Just wait until Silicene arrives.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 42.

    Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov are Russians that happen to live in the U.K, so how is this a British invention?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 41.

    30.George NZ
    STRONGER than diamond? Surely, you mean harder.
    -----------
    Unfortunately the BBC treats science as a child's hobby, and reports accordingly i.e. inaccurate, devoid of facts, proofs and reasoning.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 40.

    how on earth are there now more thatn 7000 patents for graphene? Countries need to stop this "lets tweak it slightly and repatent" scam! It's all about big companies making money from lawsuits, and hedging agaisnt what their competitors do.

    It's nothign to do with tech, or innovation or fair pay for money invested.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 39.

    33.gsum

    "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?"

    It gets you to moan online. Now say "thank you science".

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 38.

    I'm assuming here that they have not actually made a sheet of Graphene yet... (I only heard about this story this morning). The guy on the BBC this morning didn't have me convinced that manufacture/layering of hexagonal structure graphene fragments can lead to a composite 'usable' material. Interesting theory, but needs a little more solid evidence before deserving public excitement.

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 37.

    The UK has a history of inventing and failing to fund exploitation. Investment in this technology may turn out to be wasted but it would be a mistake to revert to character and let the rest of the world profit from our discoveries. We need to take more punts at funding development of scientific discoveries. Some will pay off big-time and overall we should win.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 36.

    Fullerene, no hang on, nanotubes, no hang on I've changed my mind, again, graphene, is the Next Best Thing. Now please give me lots of dosh. ....

    jokes aside though, the stuff has fascinating physical properties but that does not ensure that it will create any jobs. We should still be putting research money into current industries too.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 35.

    34Ianthetech

    and don't get me started on 'Quantum Computing' !
    ===
    I was rather hoping someone could shed some light on it.

 

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