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 114.

    Those patents are worth a fortune. The lesson here is obvious: study law, become a lawyer, specialise in intellectual property. Suing for copyright infringement is a growth industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    @52 - Nobody knows where it will take us . Amen !

    To infinity and beyond

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Every tax payer penny allocated to graphene research is one less penny wasted on the military. Of course, once perfected, that's where most of it will probably be used.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Graphene has one very obvious major commercial use - powering the individual cells in OLED displays. Now the individual cells are tiny, flexible and strong, graphene is flexible and very strong, so display surfaces can be created that are very lightweight, large and flexible, yet very robust and durable. Also, graphene has been shown to be "self-healing", useful for real-world electronics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Also please do not just blame the government for everything. People themselves want easy money just like the bankers made lots before the meltdown from virtually nothing. U cannot make a strong country and economy based on false assets. Inspire your children to be the next Nobel Prize winner and not the next Paris Hilton or Big Brother Celebrity. No wonder China is catching up ! Don't blame them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    107. rom9
    I work in Graphene in a major research center in western Europe..

    I work in a mix of cotton and nylon. I'm far too overweight for see through clothing that is only one atom thick.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    . . .and we will probably only ever need about two computers per village.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    I work in Graphene in a major research center in western Europe and yes I obviously support this investment. What has happened in research institutions all over here is the rise of "instant gratification required" that comes with most research investments. This is a worrying trend. Scientific research takes time and technologies that are researched today will impact in 10 yrs or more down the line

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    "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."

    Just a well scientists are scientists and inventors are inventors, and not necessarily of the same mind set.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    I work with a company called ETS in Twickenham manufacturing Electrical Resistance Heating Equipment this is used in the entire spectrum of manufacturing industry to "Braze"or "Solder" (a material joining technique ) to join ferrous or non ferrous materials in Automotive, Military, Aerospace,Shipbuilding, White Goods, Electrical,Electronics, The heating uses carbon blocks.I see possible uses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    #102 Meaningless numbers. The Chinese could file a million patents on applications for graphene and we could file just one. However if our one is how you make the stuff in the first place we've stitched up the entire market.

    Not that the Chinese respect UK patents anyway. Regardless of how many we file, they'll rip us off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    When the laser was invented 53 years ago, nobody saw a use for it. It was called "an answer without a question". 53 years on, we know somewhat better. Graphene may prove to be a wonder material, or it may not. But it shows promise - and promise has to be good enough at this stage.

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    Comment number 102.

    Likely to be one of the most profitable material discoveries of the century. Discovered here in Britain. However the patent breakdown is as so.

    Chinese entities 2,204
    US entities 1,754
    South Korean entities 1,160
    United Kingdom entities 54

    We've given it away. Absolute morons. Total and utter imbeciles. We discovered it and let the whole world pile in first. Speechless at the stupidity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Incumbents don't always recognise the potential of newcomers…

    "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." —Ken Olsen, Founder and CEO, Digital Equipment Corporation.

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    Comment number 100.

    #96 Complete and utter nonsense: This explains it in hideous detail
    but basically Fleming discovered penicillin but did virtually nothing with it for 14 years because he couldn't make useful quantities. It took Chain & Florey (who shared the Nobel) to mass produce it. There was no patent on Penicillin at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    The opening line reminds me of Clarke's First Law:
    "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

    Graphene does have some very exciting applications, however it may take a while. I just hope the government's short-termist attitude doesn't cut the funding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    @Rainbowinthedark Can we really patent something like graphene though? It confounds me no end that something as simple as graphene (simple only in it's production) can be patented. I understand that particular uses of graphene in electronics et cetera may be patented but I don't know if Manchester realised the possible uses of the material and were probably more interested in what made it tick...

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Is anyone else thinking "Emperor's new clothes."?

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    I may be a bit late in stating this, as others may have already commented on it. Why did Manchester |University not apply for the patent on graphene and then say that it was free for others to use.

    The U.K. failed to do this with Penicillin stating it was for all to use and then the Americans declared it was theirs for they applied for and had the patent granted.

    Are we yet again being naive.

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    Comment number 95.

    @nefer Diamond is so incredibly strong thanks to it's highly directional covalent bonds which are arranged in a tetragonal arrangement. There are no loose bonds which gives it the strength it has.

    You are quite correct though that the six membered rings of graphene is what makes it so strong & stable. There are many possibilities for graphene but like anything else we need time to realise it.


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