If its properties are unusual, then so is the story of its discovery. Graphene was theorised about as early as 1947, by PR Wallace from McGill University in Canada. But it was not until many decades later that the substance was isolated. Two Russian researchers – Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov – working at Manchester University found it when they peeled away pencil lead with Sellotape until they had isolated a one-atom-thick material. Graphene was born.
Its significance was immediately recognised and the scientists received Nobel prizes just six years after publishing their results in 2004. To put that into perspective it took Einstein 16 years! Knighthoods soon followed.
What a result for the UK then – to be the birthplace of the material of the future! Unfortunately, the nation has not yet capitalised on the discovery: only around 50 UK patents have been taken out in the first 10 years since discovery. Instead it is Asian industrial powerhouses and the US that have stolen a march on the rest of the world. By 2013 China had registered more than 2,200 graphene patents, America 1,700 and South Korea 1,200.
A graphene institute at Manchester University was part funded by £60 million from the Treasury, but Samsung of South Korea is thought to be spending approximately £250 million solely on investigating the potential use of graphene in mobile phones. It appears the UK is being somewhat outgunned. The EU is investing €1bn in graphene research over the next ten years, with the Graphene Flagship in Gothenburg coordinating research in 126 academic and industrial research institutions. The focus of the flagship is to prevent duplication of existing graphene research. The University of Cambridge has also created their own Graphene Centre, which has so far raised over £13m from commercial partners such as BaE Systems, Nokia and Dyson.
The fact that there is so much funding available suggests that companies operating in the space should certainly be looking into R&D tax credits. If ever there was a blank slate to work with, this is it. The challenges presented by working with new materials like graphene are innumerable and the investment required to define workflows for working with such materials can often be significant: how can graphene be used to filter salt from sea water at a molecular level? What role can graphene play in developing an ultra-fast wireless antenna? How can graphene be used to improve the efficiency of solar panels? Can graphene act as an interface between our neurons and electronic devices, enabling our brains to interact with machines?
As we discover more about the properties of graphene, some of the uncertainties around the material are starting to slowly be unravelled, and this work is a certainly of interest from an R&D tax relief perspective.
The financial markets’ initial reaction to graphene has been one of excitement. When Applied Graphene Materials, a spin out from Durham University, floated on AIM, it quickly gained over 200%. Brian Cox, Professor of Particle Physics at Manchester University and leader on the ATLAS experiment at CERN, recently told Credit Suisse analysts that graphene has potential to become a multi-billion dollar, or even multi-trillion dollar industry.
The possibilities are endless
Graphene is the material that could help people with severe spinal injuries walk again (by allowing damaged nerves to re-communicate), save the airline industry millions of dollars annually (through super-lightweight life rafts and slides) and help clear up nuclear disasters (it can bond with radioactive spills to form an easy-to-clean-up sludge). First impressions are that it appears the only thing holding back real-world application is our imaginations.
Medical application of graphene
The miracle cure for spinal injuries has only been tested on rats so far, and human testing is a long way off, but what else is in the pipeline?
Picking up on the strong, stretchy, thin properties of graphene, the Gates Foundation has invested $100,000 to fund the research of a graphene-latex composite for use in condoms – boosting birth control and helping slow down the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The work is being carried out at the University of Manchester.
Graphene’s nano-properties could be transformative in cancer treatments. Scientists are researching its application as a chemotherapy drug carrier for in vitro intracellular delivery. Meanwhile graphene-based microfluidic chips could help with diagnosis and treatment options, reducing the reliance on invasive biopsies.
Artificial human tissue implantation is another area where graphene has great potential: for instance, applying its strength as a reinforcing agent in the process of engineering bone tissue.
Graphene and 3D printing
Regular readers of this blog will know that another of our favourite emerging themes in R&D is 3D printing. So when the worlds of graphene and 3D printing collide we kind of expect fireworks. The truth is that it is too early at the moment to know what the full extent of the two technologies will bring. They are both at a stage when more R&D is probably being poured into their own development than application.
To date, development has been going into making them compatible – which basically means developing effective liquid graphene inks. Previously graphene had been incorporated into 3D printed materials, but only at about 20% volume. This meant that it lost much of its remarkable properties. Scientists seem to be on top of this now by combining dissolved polymer and graphene suspension.
Early application includes innovative biomaterials for nervous tissue regeneration, with a holy grail being tissue that can be produced inexpensively and in a scalable way. And away from medicine, scientists are exploring 3D graphene being used to produce biodegradable electronics or sensors in consumer products.
Graphene vs silicon – electronic warfare?
When it comes to electronics, silicon has ruled the roost for decades – the most famous global hub is even named after it: Silicon Valley. But could graphene change all that? A rudimentary glance would suggest yes: electrons can pass through graphene ten times more quickly than silicon. Adding a layer of graphene to an existing chip can reduce the operating temperature by 10°C; it sounds modest, but this could lead to huge energy efficiency gains. Last year, IBM earmarked $3 billion for R&D into post-silicon chips, and they have already created an RFID chip 10,000 times faster than its silicone equivalent by lining the transistor channels with ultra-conductive graphene.
The danger right now for the computing industry is that Moore’s Law – which says that processing chips will double in power every two years – is coming under threat. New materials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes (which have been around for longer) could provide the missing link to help Moore’s Law to have validity for many years to come.
Graphene is unlikely to have it all its own way though. One problem which was recently solved was the fact that graphene did not have the capacity to switch itself off. This is a crucial element in the transistor – an integral part of modern electronics. A research team from the University of Denmark recently seemed to have solved this by placing two layers of graphene adjacent to each other, separated by a small band gap and stimulated with ultra-short pump laser pulses. The desired result was achieved.
Another major headwind for graphene in the electronics sector is that all the existing infrastructure is geared towards silicon chip production. The computer industry has, maybe, trillions of dollars invested in silicon and is not about to pull the plug and write it off. At the very least a transitional period where both graphene and silicon are used together may be required.
Graphene: a game changer in the energy sector
Graphene is destined to have a big impact in the energy sector, changing the way it is generated, stored and distributed. It is still so early in its development, but taking a peek at solar cell technology shows the potential.
Enough sunlight hits the earth every 40 minutes to fulfil the entire planet’s energy requirements for a whole year! The problem with solar energy has always been the efficiency of the cells. While this has been steadily improving, it is still an issue. Now a study by a team at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland claims to have doubled the existing best efficiency rating of 32% to 60% efficiency. And what was the key driver of this break-through? You’ve guessed it: graphene. The process they use is known as ‘graphene doping’, where the chemical properties of the graphene are enhanced. You can read more about it here.
Hydrogen fuel cells have been talked about for many years as a green alternative for powering cars, but it has been a challenge developing commercially viable products. Researchers led by a team from North Western University have made a potentially game changing discovery using graphene. One of the problems in this field is efficiently separating protons from hydrogen. The researchers found that using an imperfect layer of graphene (with a few carbon atoms missing, leaving gaps) as a filter was an incredibly effective way of splitting the protons. The team is careful to state that this is not the final piece of the puzzle, but is an important step forward in their development. It is a technology that could, for instance, facilitate cell recharging in the time it takes to fill up a tank with petrol.
A next generation of batteries incorporating graphene technology could revolutionise what we currently achieve from lithium-ion technology. Lithium-sulphur batteries have been of interest for a while but have faced problems in that sulphur is brittle which results in short-lived batteries. Overcome this and the benefits include a high tolerance for overcharging, relatively light weight, and low toxicity. Graphene also has the potential to increase the specific energy density more than ten-fold. Researchers at various institutions have found that by using graphene-based solutions they can overcome the weaknesses inherent in sulphur. One application of this could be batteries for electric cars with a 300-mile plus range.
Problems facing graphene
As with many previous super-materials, graphene will face obstacles to its widespread usage. One such material – aluminium – took well over 100 years to truly blossom. So what are some of the specific challenges to graphene?
- Scalable production. Peeling away pencil lead was never going to be a scalable way of producing graphene. But since then scientists have been working furiously to develop more efficient ways to produce high quality graphene in larger quantities. This in itself is a huge field of R&D with many different techniques successfully applied. This is demonstrated by the price of graphene falling significantly over the last decade. For now though, mass production still remains a challenge.
- Patent wars? We have seen it in the world of mobile phones: companies aggressively acquiring patents to gain strangleholds in certain market segments. Could there be a similar arms race in the graphene industry?
- Another problem is that graphene is so, so advanced that everything else has to catch up. You can’t just plonk a layer of graphene on an existing object and improve it. Questions need to be answered: what? Why? How? How much? All of this is part of the R&D process.
- Entrenchment. As we mentioned in the electronics section, a lot of money is invested in the silicon industry – money that investors won’t just walk away from. One of the problems that graphene will therefore have to overcome is entrenchment of existing industries.
- Finally, our imaginations. What about the entirely new things out there that graphene could realise? How good is humanity at thinking up entirely new concepts? Not bad, you’d have to say. But it takes someone special to come along and do it: great physicists such as Hawkins and Einstein; Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the World Wide Web. Perhaps it was a great industrialist who summed it up best: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That was Henry Ford, of course, articulating that skill of seeing beyond the now. Who will step up for graphene, and add their name to this pantheon?
Three more amazing applications of graphene
Night vision has been around for a while but hitherto has been a rather clunky technology – think goggles that stick out several inches in front of your face. A team at the University of Michigan have been experimenting with how graphene absorbs light in different conditions. Their research has led to the very real possibility of creating night vision contact lenses. As with the team from Denmark working on transistor technology, the clever bit in this innovation is using two layers of graphene – this time with an insulating gap. As well as contact lenses, the night vision technology could be integrated into mobile phones.
Lockheed Martin has patented a graphene-based material called Perforene™. It is the centrepiece of a project that aims to revolutionise the reverse osmosis desalination process – something that could make clean drinking water far more accessible globally. The Perforene™ sheet has holes that are one billionth of a metre (one nanometre) across. These can trap chlorine, sodium and other ions from seawater while allowing the water molecules to flow through 100 times better than existing reverse osmosis techniques. A better result at a fraction of the cost.
The tablet of the future?
Our smartphones (and other devices with screens) of the future may very well be bendy, thanks to graphene. It sounds a bit innocuous, frivolous even, but the potential for this to disrupt is huge. In 2014, UK company Plastic Logic collaborated with the University of Cambridge Graphene Centre to produce a prototype bendy screen. It’s a bit surreal seeing the video and thinking, “wait a minute, that shouldn’t be bending” but this may very well be the future. The science behind it is explained here. One of the first areas where we’re likely to see graphene used on a commercial scale is within optoelectronic displays; specifically LCDs or OLEDs. Graphene is almost completely transparent, capable of transmitting up to 97.7% of light, and this low level of light retention also makes graphene ideal for use in PV cells.
Are you working with graphene?
If you are UK based and part of a limited company, you should almost certainly be speaking with R&D tax specialists. Contact ForrestBrown today to find out how the UK government could help fund your work. Alternatively, read more about R&D Tax Credits.