UK’s graphene industry lags behind the world

31 October 2013
By Tereza Pultarova
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Graphene could be used in the next-generation solar panels

Graphene could be used in the next-generation solar panels

Although it was UK researchers who discovered graphene, the country’s industry is failing to harness its commercial potential.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has warned in a statement released today that while over 7,500 graphene-based patents have been filed worldwide in 2013, only 54 – less than 1 per cent belong to the UK.

On the other hand, China holds over 2,200 graphene patents followed by South Korea with 1,754. South Korean electronics giant Samsung alone holds 407 graphene-related patents.

The situation is rather disconcerting, the IMechE believes, as the UK universities are without any doubt the world leaders in graphene research.

The wonder material, believed to have the potential to trigger a revolution in many fields including electronics, biomedicine and photovoltaics, was first isolated in 2004 by a Manchester University team led by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov who were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for this ground-breaking discovery.

The UK industry, however, is failing to harness graphene’s full potential.

The IMechE suggests the UK government joins forces with the industry and academia to develop a coherent strategy to help the country better exploit the opportunities.

“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,” said Dr Helen Meese, Head of Materials at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

“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,” she said, explaining that the graphene community has to agree on a timescale for commercialisation and develop a clear road map for on-going research and development.  

“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,” she said.

The IMechE believes that mass production of graphene should be at the end of the road map.

Among the envisioned applications of graphene could be photovoltaic coating of glass windows, enabling modern buildings, such as London’s Shard to collect energy for heating and lighting through the windows.

Graphene is also believed to hold a key to future batteries that would be able to charge in a second and to print electronic devices onto materials.

Only 0.33nm thick, graphene is the thinnest and allegedly the strongest material ever created. Despite being almost a million times thinner than a human hair, it is harder than diamond and about 300 times harder than steel.

The IMechE suggests, in the first stage, collaborative groups should be established to enable innovation and application to develop simultaneously, while creating a taskforce to focus on mass production methods.

SME’s should participate in creating a supply chain for graphene-based technology production, while possible skills shortage should be address and identified at the early stages.

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