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Research

UK 'losing out' in graphene patents race

It's been hailed as the wonder material that could herald a second industrial revolution, and it was discovered in the UK. But is the home of graphene about to be left behind?

A small construction site is being prepared next to the University of Manchester building where graphene was identified back in 2004. This is where the bulk of the UK government's 70 million euro graphene research investment will end up, in the shape of a brand new graphene institute.

Graphene is only one carbon atom thick. It is at once flexible, see-through and a hundred times stronger than steel. And it earned the people who identified it the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

Professors Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim came across the potentially revolutionary material almost by chance, as they were picking up ordinary graphite with scotch tape.

By repeating the exercise they pealed off thinner and thinner layers of graphite, until it was only one atom thin - giving them graphene.

National pride

"For research grade graphene [the scotch tape method] still gives you the best quality," Doctor Aravind Vijayaraghavan told DW.

He has been working alongside Professors Geim and Novoselov on the graphene programme. Like everybody else on the team, Vijayaraghavan feels a certain ownership of the new wonder material.

Scientist Ying Shi of the Blue Brain team and the Human Brain Project (Photo: AP Photo/Keystone/Laurent Gillieron,File)

The EU's new flagship funding pledges 1 billion euro to graphene research and to the Human Brain Project each

"I think that's not something that we only feel here in Manchester, I think that's a sort of national pride," says Vijayaraghavan. "There's always been this sense of achievement amongst people that, yes, this is a British discovery, a British invention - and therefore it is something that we need to try to benefit from, rather than letting somebody else take it away from us."

Yet some now believe the 70 million euro government investment in graphene research is far from enough for Manchester and the UK to compete and benefit from the potential massive value which graphene could represent in the future.

Patent wars

Corporate giants like South Korea's Samsung are already investing heavily in graphene because of the many possible uses the material could have in consumer and other electronics.

And while there are currently 54 patents on graphene related products in the UK, China holds more than 2,000. The US comes in at a close second.

So does it matter if the country where graphene was discovered falls behind other countries and corporations when the time comes to develop real life applications for the material?

"I think it's important for us to be at the forefront of where this is developed, but I don't think we should get too hung up on that," says Mike Ryan, a digital futurist and founder of Fusion Futures.

"Graphene is going to become so generic that every manufacturer will be using it," says Ryan. "It's like saying to the person who invented aluminum or carbon fiber: 'how can we control all the carbon fiber on earth in one city or one country?' You can't. That's not what those discoveries are there to do. Those discoveries are there to make the world a more efficient, better place for everybody."

Graphene does indeed have the potential to improve the lives of everyone - not only in the developed world.

Its potential uses in medicine and for energy saving would benefit people in developing countries too. And it could replace natural resources such as copper, because it's a great conductor of electricity, or steel because of its strength.

"A drop in the ocean"

The British government's 70 million euro investment into something as potentially revolutionary as that is seen by some as being not very much at all.

"Given the scale of the opportunity and the challenges, certainly the amount of money invested so far is a drop in the ocean," says Quentin Tannock from the global technology strategy company CambridgeIP.

His company is behind a global survey detailing the more than 7,000 patents for applications of graphene, showing the UK lagging far behind other countries and organizations.

Artistic impression of a corrugated graphene sheet. (Credit: Jannik Meyer.)

An artistic impression of a corrugated graphene sheet

"But patents don't tell the full story. The race for value from graphene will be more of a marathon than a sprint," says Tannock. "And I think the race will be won by those who are clever and canny - not necessarily those who just rush out at the start."

EU funding

Many UK research facilities have been known to avoid publicizing new inventions too soon - by filing for patents - to protect them from competitors.

Quentin Tannock hopes the graphene expertise which already exists in the UK will benefit from other funding sources than the UK government.

"Helpful is the recent announcement of the graphene flagship initiative by the European Commission, which gives 1 billion euro of funding to graphene research across Europe. And of course given the UK's strengths in graphene, I think the UK stands to benefit quite substantially from that one billion euro pot," he says.

The new graphene institute at the University of Manchester, which is scheduled for completion in 2014 or 2015, could well stand to benefit from that pot of money too.

The researchers who first identified the so-called super material could still see it grow and develop into many exciting products in Manchester - where it all began.

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