The United Kingdom is going through a crisis in the field of innovation, most apparently embodied in the case of graphene. Graphene, a groundbreaking material with potential use in an array of industries such as electronics, construction, automotive, and others, was first reported in scientific literature in 2004 by a research team at the University of Manchester, led by Professors Geim and Novoselov. For their discovery, Geim and Novoselov were awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 2010.
Although the commercial exploitation of graphene promises to infiltrate many industries, with large companies like IBM and Samsung investing heavily in graphene research, the UK landscape has shown very little activity on the commercialization of the material. In fact, until recently, the only business on UK soil having to do with graphene was a spin-off of the University of Manchester, selling expensive small-scale high-quality graphene. In the past few months, we have witnessed alarm bells from all sides, and in particular from thought and industry leaders in the UK. The culmination arrived today, with an article in BBC showing a devastating lack of graphene patents in the UK compared to other countries, with a constant global increase in patent filings. While Geim and Novoselov repeatedly state that they welcome collaboration with the industry, the industry tends to come from abroad, pointing to a deeper problem in the UK: a shortage of large high tech companies.
The BBC article compares the number of patents in the UK to those in South Korea, the US, and China. The first two have about 20 times more graphene patents than the UK, whereas China owns almost 50 times more. The ratio of the number of patents per capita is heavily on the side of the US and South Korea. It is not difficult to see where this disbalance comes from. Graphene has primarily been seen as a fantastic electronic and optoelectronic material, with potential applications in the computing and touchscreen industries set to cause the biggest impact. Is it then surprising that the most activity in terms of patents and devices has been seen from those that already excel in those two fields? Samsung has been at the forefront of mobile device technology in the past few years, spearheading the touchscreen revolution. Graphene is just one of the materials which they are considering for making the next generation of mobile devices. IBM has always been at the forefront of computing, and incorporates a large research team which survives by inventing ever faster electronics. So the problem in the UK is not a lack of collaboration with the industry, or a lack of will for patenting by the academia. The problem is the lack of big high tech electronics industry.
With Samsung and IBM clearly winning the electronics race, all is not lost for the UK. Graphene holds at least as much potential in its mechanical properties as it does in its electronic properties, and the supremacy in the mechanical domain has yet to be established. Businesses that will profit from future developments will come from the aerospace, defense, construction, automotive and ship building industry, with the requirement that those businesses are willing to invest heavily in innovation. In the case of the UK, it would be optimal for those businesses to collaborate with the magnificent knowledge base present in the country’s academia. Large sums of money, such as the 60m GBP recently allocated for graphene research, are more than welcome, but they need to go to joint research clearly aimed at commercial production. Perhaps industry giants should follow the example of BASF, which recently opened a joint Max Planck institute to study graphene and polymers in Germany.
Source: BBC story