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 154.

    @145 "the article states it HAS a thickness - one atom. Therefore it cannot be two dimensional."

    But each atom needs only 2 coordinates to describe its position in the lattice, since a 1-atom-thick layer cannot vary in the 3rd dimension.

    If nothing is thinner than an atom, I think that makes it *mathematically* 2-dimensional.

    Dimension is a trickier concept if you go sub-atomic, I think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    "Discovery" of graphene? It was lying about, just waiting to be discovered, was it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    @141 Britain now world 7th largest economy behind Brazil, but may soon overtake France (CEBR). But "lower-middle"? depends where you put the cutoff.

    Even the US is having to look over its shoulder at China, where (as the article pointed out) the greatest number of patents are held.

    In materials science, as in space, China is now growing faster than the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    graphene will not be the first materiel that was overhyped.

    it has yet to be shown practical and is that £60million total or in addition to the £11 million?

    a tonne of money for something that is of questionable value

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.


    The wave functions describing the physics are two dimensional. That is what makes it a 2-d solid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    Could this mean light-weight batteries for motor vehicles? Could this be the weight breakthrough so desperately needed? If so, perhaps the internal combustion engine's days will be over before too long?

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Every now and then there is revolution of some kind. So now we have this wonderful graphene thing. Technological advance is always better then to fall behind. Those rallying against spending research money may be more comfortable sitting around a campfire chewing some raw meat?

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.


    But the article states it HAS a thickness - one atom. Therefore it cannot be two dimensional.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.


    Width and height. Thickness or depth would be the third dimension.

    Apparently time is the 4th dimension and aliens come out of the 5th dimension.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    "Graphene is a form of carbon that exists as a sheet, one atom thick
    Atoms are arranged into a two-dimensional honeycomb structure"

    How can it be two-dimensional if it has a thickness?

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Why isn't big business (who will no doubt be the financial beneficiaries of this technology) paying for this research? Why should the UK taxpayer be footing this bill while people are losing jobs, losing benefits, disability assistance and so on? Sorry to be a party pooper but keeping kids out of poverty rates as a higher priority to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    considering it electical conductivity be used by turning it into electical cable so that BT could use it to improve the transmition of the broadband and telephone signal and thuse give this country a lead in the internet conectivity lauge

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    I want some

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Some perspective, Samsung spent last year USD11Billion on marketing. The Brits are out of touch how the global economy works. However you have put lorry loads of dead-lead in your saddle-bags with welfare policies that over several generations haven't worked, and now increased foreign aid payments that are 'out of proportion' to your actual lower-middle status reality. Britain is out of sync.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    The only logical thing I think to solve the problem is an industrial policy that allows the government pay for everything needed to manufacture new products from a new discovery like this. They pay for everything to factory manchines and wages with the eventual goal to privatise to the workers or uni not a foreign buyer.

    I can see no other way to get round banks plus students don't have millions

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    I think that England's approach to ground breaking development in photography is a good parallel. England didn't patent the process while France did. At first, the French process won out because the French funded research. But later, photographers in American chaffed at the idea of paying France to license the process. In the end, the English process won out because of its free availability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    It will not matter how wonderful Graphene turns out to be , the only sure thing is that the inward looking British Government will not be involved, and the short term attitude of the Stock Exchange and Banks will ensure that only foreign companies get the finance to produce it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Another missed opportunity along with stem cells and 3D printing it's being done and taken further by other countries along with the jobs that go with the future products.

    I can't understand it, is it too much red tape to start up a business, not enough interest after we discover something. Generations are being robbed of jobs. Maybe we should try keep discoveries like these secret just for us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    Massive missed opportunity they should have patented it, as it is the Chinese and Yanks have thousands of possible applications already filed while we have 54. Typical GB discover something great and then let everyone else use it for free. It would have been nice on this one occasion if the tax payer could have got some money, any money even back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Graphene is no doubt a wonder material. The practical barriers I suggest will be those of sticking the thin sheets together using normal materials and of interfacing Graphene to other common materials. Similar problems persist with Carbon Fibre. I would like to hear from anyone who can help my R&D company develop new patented carbon Fibre Technology which may well be applicable to Graphene.


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