UK failing to harness commercial potential of graphene

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Despite leading research into this miracle material, UK industry is falling behind global competitors

31 October 2013

The UK could miss out on the huge potential of graphene unless more practical uses are developed for the ‘miracle material’.

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A new policy statement from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers today warns that despite UK universities leading the world in graphene development, the country’s commercialisation of the material has been woeful.

By 2013, over 7,500 graphene-based patents had been filed worldwide – however, only 54 are from the UK, or less than 1%. In comparison, over 2,200 are held by China and 1,754 by South Korea (Korean company Samsung alone hold 407 patents).

Biomedicine, electronics and composites are all fields where graphene is expected to have a great impact. But the UK government and industry must work collaboratively with academia to develop a coherent strategy if the country is to reap the benefits.

One future use of graphene could be to replace ordinary glass windows with photovoltaic, meaning buildings like the Shard in London could be covered in glass which is fully transparent but capable of collecting energy for heating and lighting.

Graphene could also help create batteries which charge in seconds, or used to ‘print’ electronic devices like mobile phones onto material.

Graphene is the thinnest and – purportedly – the strongest material ever created. It is just 0.33nm thick, almost a million times thinner than a human hair, harder than diamond and about 300 times harder than steel. To put this into context, it will take the weight of an elephant balanced on a needle point to break it.

Dr Helen Meese, Head of Materials at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said:

“At the moment, there’s a very real possibility that this incredible British material could one day be best known for never fulfilling its enormous potential. UK industry, with the help of Government, needs to take a lead.

“The UK is at the very forefront of graphene research, but academics are increasingly concerned that little is being done to encourage industry to develop practical uses. This must change.

“The graphene community has to agree on a timescale for commercialisation now and develop a clear road map for ongoing research and development. The UK must also establish how it intends to compete in terms of market share and mass production.

“If these issues are not addressed soon, the UK could miss out on the limitless potential of the material it has spent so long developing.”

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers calls upon industry to:

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Establish collaborative groups to enable innovation and application to develop simultaneously, while creating a taskforce to focus on mass production methods.
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Develop the graphene supply chain along with a coherent strategy for SMEs to get graphene-based technology to market and protect UK intellectual property.
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Create a robust strategy for identifying viable applications and engage investors in education and training programmes to reduce investment risk.

Additionally, Government must:

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Address the potential skills shortage and urge the Catapults to continue to assist SMEs in developing technical demonstrators to show graphene’s viability.
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Establish a robust public engagement strategy for ‘emerging technologies’.

While the name ‘graphene’ was first cited in 1962 to describe a single carbon layer, it was not until 2004 that the material’s true potential was uncovered by Professors Geim and Novoselov from Manchester University, when they demonstrated that graphite could be separated into single layers using sticky tape.

In just under a decade since then it has been proposed that graphene could enhance existing technologies as well as having the potential to develop new fields of engineering and science.

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