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January 27, 2013 7:41 pm

Graphene: Faster, stronger, bendier

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The material may have many uses but its discoverers are warning not to expect an immediate revolution

Novak Djokovic, the Australian Open champion and world number one tennis player, strides on to court with a weapons case – marked with the letter “G” – handcuffed to his wrist.

From it, he extracts a racket made partly from graphene, the first wonder material of the 21st century. The Serb’s languid first serve pulverises the racket of a hapless opponent cowering in body armour.

Head, the Austrian sports equipment maker, happily concedes its advertisements are trading on global hype and will not say how much of the racket is actually graphene. But the company – like Samsung and IBM before it – is not going to miss out on a hubbub of excitement surrounding the world’s latest miracle product.

Graphene is a sheet of carbon, only one atom thick but extending indefinitely in two dimensions. Its properties encompass an astonishing range of superlatives, including better electrical and thermal conductivity, mechanical strength and optical purity than any other material.

Research into graphene will receive a €1bn boost from the EU Monday. Its selection as a European “flagship” programme for the next decade is the latest in a surge of public and corporate support for work on a substance that was unknown 10 years ago.

“Graphene’s many superior properties justify its nickname of a ‘miracle material’,” says a recent “road map for graphene” published in the journal Nature by an international group of scientists, including Kostya Novoselov, who first isolated graphene with Andre Geim at Manchester University in 2004.

The list of potential applications is correspondingly vast. In electronics, they range from ultra-fast transistors to foldable computer displays and light-emitting diodes; it promises more efficient lasers and photodetectors; it could transform electrical storage and production from batteries to solar cells. Composite materials containing graphene could strengthen aircraft wings and the biomedical uses include tissue engineering and drug delivery.

Prof Geim finds it impossible to single out the most exciting or promising applications. “The field is so vast and developing so rapidly that to focus on any particular direction would diminish the magnitude of the whole enterprise,” he says. “The number of examples is flabbergasting. Ten thousand [research] papers were published last year on graphene.”

Although there is no reliable estimate of global expenditure on graphene research, Prof Geim says the current input must be about $1bn a year, based on the published output.

Governments around the industrialised world are pouring in money to secure their participation in the graphene revolution. Britain has committed more than £60m to keep the country where it all started at the forefront of research, pulling in considerably more from companies wanting to collaborate with UK academics.

This month Manchester university unveiled plans for the £61m National Graphene Institute, to be completed early in 2015, with the aim of being “the world’s leading centre of graphene research”. Cambridge university announced last week a Cambridge Graphene Centre, with about £30m of research funding. The EU is already spending millions of euros on graphene research – and the Flagship research programme will boost this considerably. “The money will be distributed thinly around Europe,” says Prof Geim. “You can look at this as a huge €1bn seed fund to give companies more inducement to become involved with European universities.”

As often occurs when a hot new technology arises, there are concerns in the UK and elsewhere in Europe about being outpaced by American and Asian competitors.

Some of this concern stems from patent analysis. The latest by CambridgeIP, a UK-based technology strategy company, shows that by the end of 2012 there had been 2,204 graphene patent publications from China, 1,754 from the US, 1,160 from South Korea – and just 54 from the UK.

But patent volumes do not tell the whole story. Quality matters, too. “Europe has not been as aggressive in patenting,” says Luigi Colombo, a graphene expert at Texas Instruments of the US, “but Europe is at the heart of graphene work these days.”

“The race for value from graphene is far from over,” agrees Quentin Tannock, chairman of CambridgeIP. “UK inventors have a well-deserved reputation for being particularly innovative and the UK has enormous potential to secure future value in the graphene patent landscape.”

The UK and Manchester also have a “brand advantage”, particularly following the award of a Nobel Prize to Profs Geim and Novoselov in 2010.

There has been a high demand to work with the new Manchester centre, says Prof Novoselov. “We want to pick up perhaps five or six companies – certainly no more than 10 – who will come on-site to work with us. We will learn from the technology they use in their production and they will see science at the frontier.”

Taking the patent figures at face value, Samsung of South Korea leads the corporate pack, with 407 published graphene patents and patent applications, according to CambridgeIP. Next comes IBM of the US with 134.

Although Samsung put out a flashy advertisement in 2010 about bendy consumer electronics made from graphene and published a scientific paper about a graphene transistor last year, the company is coy about its development of graphene devices. Observers believe flexible display screens will feature in its first graphene products.

IBM is more forthcoming. Supratik Guha, IBM head of physical sciences research, says the company is working on high-frequency graphene transistors, new technology for laying down graphene sheets for electronics, and terahertz devices.

The terahertz region of the electromagnetic spectrum, lying between infrared and microwave frequencies, holds great promise in sensing, medical imaging and short-distance communication. Terahertz waves pass through plastics and living tissues but scientists have struggled to control them. “We can use graphene to modulate and control terahertz radiation,” says Mr Guha.

Companies such as Samsung and IBM had a head start because they already had researchers working on carbon nanotubes – essentially graphene rolled up into molecular cylinders – which share some of the properties of graphene’s open atomic sheets.

Several small companies around the world are making and selling graphene. One is Graphene Industries, a spinout from Manchester university. “We sell single-crystal graphene flakes to academic customers, including IBM and most of the world’s semiconductor companies,” says Peter Blake, chief executive.

Graphene Industries makes its flakes by mechanical exfoliation, a refinement of the “Scotch tape” method originally used by Profs Geim and Novoselov. The raw material is graphite, a form of carbon mined in several countries, which consists of trillions of graphene sheets stacked vertically. Using the right micro-equipment, it is surprisingly easy to peel off the sheets one by one.

A new report by Lux Research, a consultancy, shows the market for graphene growing from $9m last year to $126m in 2020. “While an impressive debut for a new material, this growth is less than some of the hype may suggest,” says Lux analyst Ross Kozarsky. The report lists a large number of graphene start-ups “bubbling with bold claims of cheaper and/or better graphene from novel precursors and processes” – and warns of the threat of oversupply.

Products containing graphene, such as Head’s racket, are beginning to emerge. Ralf Schwenger, head of racquets R&D, says that adding graphene to strengthen the shaft redistributes weight to the racket’s tip and grip, which increases manoeuvrability.

. . .

Head used an Austrian government grant to work with Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute to develop the racket. According to Mr Schwenger, the incorporation of graphene improves the racket’s performance by “a double-digit percentage” but he does not deny that the company is taking advantage of “hype” over the material for marketing purposes. “For us it helps that graphene is out in the media and there is some hype about,” he says, “otherwise it would be more difficult for us to sell the racket.”

A quite different application just reaching the market is “conducting ink” containing graphene. Vorbeck Materials, a start-up company in Jessup, Maryland, is a leader here. John Lettow, chief executive, says the flexibility and durability of graphene-based inks makes them perfect for printed electronics such as smart cards and high-security packaging.

Vorbeck is also developing lithium-ion batteries with graphene electrodes – another promising application. “We can also make flexible batteries, which might for example fit into the strap of your bag to recharge your cellphone while you’re out walking,” says Mr Lettow.

Flexible screens for consumer devices are likely to appear within three years, though no one expects the really big applications in electronics, such as ultra-fast low-power processors and memory chips, to come to commercial fruition in less than a decade. For many uses, the graphene will require substantial chemical and physical modification. Yet it is not too soon for investors to track the field, says Andrew Haigh, executive director of Coutts, the wealth management arm of Royal Bank of Scotland, which has studied graphene patents. “It is too soon to sell a ‘graphene fund’ but we have hit graphene and we will keep hitting it, because this knowhow is going to be one of the key drivers of the 21st century world,” he says.

Mr Tannock agrees. “Investors should appreciate that graphene is, despite rapid progress in R&D and intense commercial interest, still at a relatively early stage where the ‘time to market’ for specific industrial applications will vary and can be lengthy.” Even so, he adds: “Large-scale production of high-quality graphene and applications of graphene in composites, coatings and inks could all produce investor returns in the medium term. In the longer term, complex graphene deployments may result in even greater returns on investment, for example in the health and life sciences.”

The discoverers of graphene warn of undue expectations. “There is too much hype and I believe it is important to moderate expectations that have gone ballistic,” says Prof Geim.

While he dismisses graphene ink and tennis racquets as “small niche products” riding on a tide of hype, Prof Geim is confident the material will eventually transform electronics, energy, aerospace and biotechnology. “Normally it takes 40 years for a new material to move from academia to consumer products, so graphene is just a bambina,” he says.

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