From being a substance that no one had ever heard of, graphene has suddenly become the hot new property in the science world, with thousands of patents being applied for in the last seven years, many of them within the last twelve months. Rather disappointingly, bearing in mind that it was discovered in this country, at the University of Manchester, only a tiny proportion of the total (54 out of over 7000) have been applied for in the UK. China has taken out the most and the South Korean company Samsung is the single biggest owner of new patents on various applications for the substance.
What is all the excitement about?
Andrei Geim and Konstantin Novosolev, working at the University of Manchester, first published details of their work with graphene in 2004, later being awarded a Nobel Prize in 2010. Their ground-breaking work was basic in the extreme, creating only very small amounts of graphene which they harvested using sticky tape. It was enough however to be able to see just how amazing the substance is – just one carbon atom thick, it is nevertheless amazingly strong, very flexible and very conductive. Its potential is still being explored – hence the huge number of patent applications – but currently will be useful in applications as varied as consumer electronics and medicine. Although it is unbelievably thin, it is stronger than steel and conducts a current much better than copper. It is already being considered for use in touch screens – it will be impossible to damage the surface and it will be ultra-sensitive. It could also be used for concealed electrical circuits to provide lighting and mixed with plastic in amounts as small as 1% could make it conduct electricity. As a replacement for silicone in computers it would be much more hard wearing and will improve the life of hardware almost indefinitely.
Is the UK losing out?
Despite the Chancellor, George Osborne, pledging further funding for research, bringing the UK total to £60m, some people fear this is not enough. Giant companies like Samsung already own almost as many patents as the whole of the UK and underinvestment may mean that in 20 years’ time, the UK will be completely left behind in all fields in which graphene plays a part. Since this may prove to be almost every sector of life, this is a serious matter. Quite rightly, since it was the home of the early work on graphene, the National Graphene Institute is to be built in Manchester at a cost of £61m and there will be a serious attempt at the institute to close the gap between the academic interest and industry which is essential if the UK is to be anywhere on the global picture in the future. The European Commission is announcing the winners of a €1 billion prize to fund scientific research.
How is it made?
Making graphene in small amounts is almost unbelievably easy and some researchers have recently released details of how they made some in an ordinary household blender. Since its initial discovery, most work has gone into finding out a method of making graphene in large enough amounts to be financially viable and the main problem that presents is that any large quantity must also be defect-free. A team made up of British and Irish researchers used graphite powder, water and washing up liquid which they then blitzed at high speed. The shearing force of the blade was sufficient to separate the layers of graphene which make up naturally occurring graphite flakes but without damaging the essential structure. This is not the end of the process, of course, because the resulting graphene solution must then be separated out and processed, but the researchers – who have been working with the UK company Thomas Swan – are happy that it is a ‘significant step’ towards creating commercial amounts of graphene. Graphene is already being ‘grown’ by chemical vapour deposition. This creates larger sheets of the material but they do tend to include a lot of defects which seriously impede the properties of graphene, making the process very wasteful so another method is being eagerly sought by many research teams worldwide, with huge rewards being on the table for the first successful team past the post.