Andre Geim is commonly asked why he never patented graphene. The Nobel laureate’s famous answer is that a representative of a large high tech company told him that in some years, the high tech company will hold so many graphene patents that Professor Geim will spend a fortune and his entire life suing them. But few people know that graphene was indeed patented, two years before the first research papers came out of the Geim lab in Manchester and the de Heer lab at Georgia Tech, by a company called Nanotek Instruments.
US patent number 7071258, entitled “Nano-scaled graphene plates”, was filed in October 2002. The patent contains a drawing of single- and multi-walled carbon nanotubes, which unroll into monolayer and multilayer graphene sheets. The invention protects not only graphene itself, but also graphene composites that include other materials, such as polymers, metals, glasses, carbons, etc. The patent owners, Bor Jang and Wen Huang, also use the patent to coin the term “nano-scale graphene plates” (NGP), advertised by many companies today. So how come this visionary patent skims below the radar of most graphene researchers today?
“Unfortunately, Dr. Geim and most of the scientists in the field of nano materials failed to search for patent literature where many significant discoveries and technology developments are reported. Based on our open literature and patent document search results, there does not appear to be any report before 2002 that documented the actual production and use of single-layer graphene sheets for any application”, explains Ron Beech, Director of Marketing and Sales for Angstron Materials, the descendant company of Nanotek.
Ron Beech points out a rift that goes deeper than the graphene patent issue – most scientific researchers from the academic world never bother to look into the patent literature, where they could find solutions to many obstacles that they face in the daily lab grind. Whereas efforts have been made, especially in recent years, to promote the collaboration between industry and academia, the sharing of knowledge has in fact gone only one way. Industry leaders tend to follow the scientific literature very closely, but scientists fail to scout the patents.
“I couldn’t agree more with Ron”, says Elena Polyakova, CEO of Graphene Laboratories, best known for its daughter company Graphene Supermarket. “Scientists do not read patents, and often don’t know what the industry is doing”. Dr. Polyakova knows both sides of the coin, having followed up a successful scientific career with her post as a founder and CEO of one of the largest graphene suppliers.
“Dr. Bor Jang (co-owner of Angstron Materials and owner of the first graphene patent) is a rare scientific talent, and he did loads of work on graphene well before the academia caught up”, adds Dr. Polyakova. “He was one of the pioneers in the development of graphene and has over 40 patents related to graphene production and applications, including the first patent for single layer graphene in 2002 and the first patent on graphene reinforced metal, glass, carbon and ceramic-matrix composites and single layer graphene-reinforced polymer composites. But Dr. Jang almost never published scientific papers, for which reason he is almost unknown in academia.”
Working with emerging nano-technologies like graphene, one needs to overcome a series of obstacles and technological challenges to extract the full potential of the technology. While scientists tend to skim on the bottom-level details for the sake of displaying the magnificent properties of the material in scientific publications, patents are a platform through which the industry tends to present the solutions to exactly those challenges and obstacles. Perhaps a stronger cohesion and collaboration can be formed if academic scientists start looking the other way.