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 94.

    Didn't Lord Kelvin say there was no use for electricity either?

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    There was a similar short sighted comment that announced the scrapping of the Black Arrow and Satellite projects.

    Now although we build satellites we have to depend on others to launch them and not always successfully!

    It must be that the ROI is greater than two years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    While my other comment is being moderated, I would like to say that the graphene story suffers a lot from the 'natural' dumbing down of BBC science stories. It seems silly to carry this tendency to the point where it disables the story itself. Graphene is not a thin element, and should not be announced as one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    It has the potential to double productivity and it will make workers much more effective - although it does have a side effect of acting as a laxative

    Oh wait hang on that's caffeine not graphene...

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    How does this matter for UK? Despite discovery being made in Britain, UK has failed to patent - just 54 in comparison to China's 2,200. George Osborne announced more money for graphene research last month, (= extra £21.5M to universities), but patent problem is tripping point.
    Whatever UK may develop, much time will be spent in court re infringement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    It is a commercial opportunity.
    It is something we can make and sell to others.
    It is a product that can be developed for use in other technologies.
    It is something we can export.

    For a country with nearly three million unemployed, with six million not economically active and deeply in debt it is worth the punt.

    Whoever says otherwise is a nincompoop. Lots of them about these days I'm afraid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Please stop using phrases about 'the thinest substance ever known'. 'Thin' or 'thick' - ness is not a quality of 'substances' but of people like your reporters! Specific examples of 'substances', like carbon, can exist as thin graphene, thick graphite, or shiny diamonds. Crystal structure is what the news is about..
    Piaget demonstrated the inability of younger children, and some adults, to

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    #35 fuzzy, #34 Ianthetech

    Graphene might have real potential for quantum computing. The really difficult part is getting the quantum field to work stably at or near room temperatures. Even more interesting it is only a tiny step from room temperature quantum systems to room temperature superconductors .. some really exciting things lead from there...

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Well I don't know BBC. Most information about graphene, I've read from your articles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    When bees use the hexagon in hives, that geometry is the most efficient one for functioning. I wonder if the atomic hexagonal geometry of graphene (cf, picture) is why graphene is stronger than diamond, which I think is a lattice shape?

    This sounds a good time for ordinary creative folk to send in private patents, don't leave it to big corporations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Even if it doesn't amount to much who knows what other physics we may come to understand whilst pursuing graphene.

    On another point this article brings up, patents. We've seen that the system is broken (e.g. Apple patent wars) a patent shouldn't be granted unless a working prototype can be seen. It's ludicrous that you can protect something that doesn't exist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    The money will not be wasted regardless of the outcome. Consider some of the benefits - providing jobs for the intelligent and hard working for several years, inspiring young minds, and enhancing our capabilities to perform state of the art scientific research.

    A popular alternative use of £60m allows us to observe a handful of celebrities dancing for a few weeks - our society needs to grow up.

  • Comment number 82.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    I imagine it is too good to be true but still very useful.

    For example it says in the article it could replace Silicon but Silicon has some useful properties like doping that allow very important transistors to be made, can graphene replicate this function within electronics?

    I don't know but these are the sorts of factors that will effect its usefulness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    show me anything in the general news that isn't turned into hype! News is entertainment and is either about perverse killings or corrupt politicians or any of the other prurient interests of us the people.

    Fortunately most of us know how to seek out the real story from more detailed sources on the net than the BBC's diet of two syllable twaddle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I believe the 'senior professor' is very short-sighted indeed and may need to visit his local opticians!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Capitalism itself is a big Ponzi scheme run out of investors. Nothing can put the genie back in the bottle, not even graphene, there is simply no money left to invest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Who is this "very senior British professor" and more importantly what is he a Professor of? (If he's not a professor in a related field then his viewpoint is as meaningful/less as a random person from the street. Why would a Professor of Theology or Spanish know any more about Graphene than you or I)
    And what are the actual objections?
    Without any of the above information it's a pointless quote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    All the anonymous quoted professor is saying it that he does not see the wider commercial applications for graphene other than the general theoretical concepts of applications.

    Yes, there are *potential* applications, but *potential* applications are not commercial unless you can name a few, they are marketable and you can produce them cheaply.

    That said, £60 million is peanuts

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    It's not often that an entire new field of science and technology is opened up, graphene really does have potential to change the world. The quantity of patents is not equivalent to the quality or value, however it would be nothing short of criminal to effectively loose this technology before it really gets going. My worry is that too many patents could effectively stifle commercial development.


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