The UK’s global graphene race

Graphene is extremely lightweight, more conductive than copper and 100 times stronger than steel.

With graphene tipped to revolutionise industry, James Pozzi reviews its development as the UK looks to establish itself as an industry world leader.

They say with hype comes excitement. And going by this notion, graphene comes with both in abundance. From the pages of the business, tech and news press, it appears all and sundry are extolling the virtues of the new super material. Reviewing what’s on the table, the hype seems justified. Just one atom thick, graphene is extremely lightweight; more conductive than copper and 100 times stronger than steel.

George Osborne
Chancellor George Osborne announced a £50m commitment to graphene in 2011, continuing a series of government and industry driven investments.

Since being discovered by scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester in 2004, graphene’s potential for changing the way products are manufactured has been debated. But given the acceleration in its development, these notions have become increasingly tangible. As a result, the global scramble to commercialise the 2D material has also gathered pace.

The UK, looking to establish itself as a world leader, signalled its intent in 2011 when the government pledged £50m towards graphene development. At this year’s Budget, Chancellor George Osborne pledged a further £14m towards a Graphene Applications Innovation Centre, based at the Centre for Process Innovation, part of the government’s network of Catapult technology centres. This compliments the centre piece for UK graphene innovation at the material’s city of origin in Manchester, which will be home to the £61m National Graphene Institute from next year.

An institution at the forefront of its commercialisation is Teeside-based Applied Graphene Materials (AGM). Jon Mabbitt, chief executive officer of AGM, says he believes it’ll be a few decades yet before the full potential of the material is realised across all sectors, but some sectors will benefit quicker than others.

Jon Mabbitt, CEO of Applied Graphene Materials
Jon Mabbitt, chief executive officer, Applied Graphene Materials

“Although in some sectors graphene will take a long time to deliver the ‘miracle’ enhancements promised – bendy phones are unlikely to hit the high street over the next year or so – in the shorter term AGM expects to develop applications in paints and coatings, lubricants and composites,” he explains. “This is where the material is easily dispersed and which feed through to a range of important international markets such as the oils and lubricants, aeronautical and nautical industries.”

Concern exists over the meagre number of UK graphene patents registered. Last year, data from consultancy firm CambridgeIP showed the UK had registered just 54 patents. This was compared to China’s 2,204, the USA with 1,754 and South Korea placing 1,160. But the UK industry’s stakeholders suggest it is a case of quality over quantity – registering the right patent instead of 10 instances of little value.

Despite varying degrees of opinion over the patent shortfall, there is a consensus that being a truly global research area will naturally attract interest to the UK R&D space. Ivan Buckley, project manager of the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester, says industry’s desire to work with the centre is strong. “We have been overwhelmed by the amount of industrial interest in graphene from both the UK and beyond,” he says. “We are now working with over 30 companies and enquiries continue apace as new research reveals on practically a daily basis, further possibilities for the application of this new material.”

Dick Elsy, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, believes that while the UK is already established as a world leader in the research phase of graphene, it is critical for this to continue into the commercialisation phase. “If the UK is to capitalise on this and become a global market leader in the exploitation and commercialisation of graphene applications, it is essential that a concerted effort is delivered to prove that the relevant graphene manufacturing processes are feasible at scale,” he says.

Mr Elsy highlights the work of The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) – one of seven centres part of the HVM – as being integral to this. “CPI and the Catapult centres are making rapid progress in helping UK businesses to accelerate the commercialisation of new and innovative technologies such as graphene,” he says. “This effort will be an important factor in the UK’s future competitive position in high value manufacturing.”

Bob Gilbert, chair of the HVM Catapult and also chair of the Intellectual Property Office, feels there needs to be a sense of clarity and focus throughout the industry going forward. “We need to focus on applications in markets where the UK has real potential to develop and strengthen its competitive position,” he explains. “We can be world leaders on graphene applications in composites, for example, but it is unlikely that we will do so in electronics. Focus is therefore key, as well as smart pooling of resources.”