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.

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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 74.

    You consider 60m a lot of money for a project funding numerous scientists for a few years to look at a material that could make significant improvements to our way of life and reap huge financial benefits.

    In 2010 the BBC revealed it paid £54m to "top" presenters such as Ross, Norton, and Moyles - just for a year.

    I think Science Editor's that can't understand context are overpaid too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Some homes in London cost £30m, so you can only buy two of those houses. £60m is squat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out"
    -quote from one of the music managers, about the beatles.

    "Stock has reached a permentanlty high plateo."
    - quite given by senior banker two months before the wall street crash.

    Often, Revolutionary things are turned down. I Support this advance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

    Who was this "very senior" professor then? Let's have his/her name so that we can prepare their entry in the book of quotations for the myopic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Ah yes, the British Govt. are playing down the importance of yet another technological advancement. Just like the Jet engine....and the computer. The fact that graphine has a higher tensile strength than steel, more conductive than copper, lighter than both as well as being cheap seems to be irrelivant.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    This is an absolutely amazing material that even I, as a non-technical person can see that it offers potentially life-changing solutions, in so many areas. £60 Million is a small price to pay for a technology that will clearly have such a big impact on our day to day lives in the future. I say it is money well spent!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Lasers, televison, radio and cars didn't have much going for them either!

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    What other industry in the UK is going to use Graphene even if they discover some significant application? We have no electronics industry to exploit it.In the 80's the government used the North Sea Oil money to destroy manufacturing and develop the financial markets .Graphene could probably be made into a strong whip to soundly beat the greedy, small minded idiots who run this country

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    At last, something worth investing in. Even the limb brained, technologically illiterate politicians will understand the benefits.
    £60 million these days is utter peanuts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Reading the comments about how patents are an extremely bad method of determining technical ability and basically giving away your secrets...

    What if Manchester has been researching Graphene madly from day 1 and kept hush hush about it? Unlikely as J.Clarkson becoming a vegetarian but it makes for a nice day dream.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    the research done on graphene has started only 8 years ago, only some extent of impatience could get us to expect any viable technologies already. Graphene boasts an unusual number of possible applications and money flows into its reasearch accordingly, the flow boosted perhaps by its obvious-to-everyone uniqueness. It's all still at fundamental level and can bring us unforeseen benefits in future

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    62. Mark
    60 mill? Isnt that as much as we send the EU dictators daily?

    Its about what we spend each hour on benefits. (£170bn a year so approx £500M a day?) so by govt budget scale its small change

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    60 mill? Isnt that as much as we send the EU dictators daily?

    I would get a better return for my money with the Graphene.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    I want shares

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Before the enthusiasts decide on the multiple revolutionary uses for graphene, would it not be better to wait until they can actually make the stuff in useful viable form. Cart before horse springs to mind here and easy funding for universities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    If the BBC is going to discuss innovative technology, can you please teach your presenters the correct pronunciation of the word "patent"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Graphene has been known about since 1916. It is only since 2004 that we've started to realise its properties and potential. As with so-called "rare earths", there's still millions of uses we could invent for this stuff. As long as its production doesn't harm the environment, the future looks good. One day, we'll wonder how we ever did without it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    #52 Thats not quite right. GPS satellites have to factor in Einsteins theory of relativity to make the positioning data more accurate. Its not the reason that GPS works though.

    Incidentally you can prove the same thing by putting a clock on a 747 flying to New Zealand & back and comparing to one left in England. Even at that speed time changes slightly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Funding is only one area that needs looking at. Apart from a few UK jobs, Engineering/Physics/Etc are generally a low-paid jobs. And although it's great to have all these Courses at Uni, we need the jobs to keep the people in the UK, and on this front we don't...We talk about exports so much, but if we just made what we used we'd be better off, on so many levels..

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Seems to me that the only people destined to make loads of money out of this is the Patent Lawyers.


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