LONDON // Imagine fully charging a smartphone in seconds or an electric car in minutes.
Consider the possibilities of a battery that was so light and flexible it could be folded up or stitched into clothing. How useful would a membrane that could filter the salt out of seawater be in the developing world?
These are some of the applications that are being developed from graphene, the material that was first isolated in the north-west British city of Manchester in 2004 by Sir Andre Geim and Sir Kostantin Novoselov. In 2010, the pair won the Nobel Prize for the innovation.
Graphene, often described as a two-dimensional material as it is created at just one atom thick from carbon, is being touted as a wonder material that will have the same effect on lives in the future that plastic had for the post-war generation.
There are hopes that it will unleash a new technology and manufacturing revolution in the United Kingdom and be one of the building blocks of the government’s “Northern Powerhouse” economic ambitions, as a graphene cluster is developed around Manchester. Last year, the Â£60 million (Dh311.8m) National Graphene Institute (NGI) opened in the city and further research facilities are under construction.
Jim O’Neill, a world-renowned economist who is now commercial secretary to the UK Treasury and a honorary professor at Manchester University, says graphene could become a big commercial and employment success, as well as being a huge boost for the university.
“If we were sitting here in 2026, [and] if graphene hasn’t contributed in a significant way to Manchester’s value added, it would be disappointing,” he says.
Graphene has some amazing properties that make it particularly adaptable when added to other materials. It conducts electricity 30 times better than silicon and is also the most impermeable material ever discovered.
Graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, yet it is also flexible and almost transparent. A little goes a long way: a gram of graphene could cover several football pitches.
Companies such as IBM, Samsung, BAE Systems and Dyson have raced to get involved in graphene-related research. Rolls-Royce, the aircraft engine maker, is assessing the possibilities for graphene and was engaged with the Manchester institute. “The range of proposed applications is wide, from electronics through to structural composite materials. Each could offer potential benefits along with different challenges in the realisation of these benefits into a full scale commercial product,” a spokesman for the company says.
James Baker, the business director of the NGI, was hired two years ago from the aerospace company BAE Systems to lead the commercialisation of Manchester’s research.
He has been persuading companies to come and work with research scientists, chemists and engineers at the university.
“This has real potential to disrupt, but British business needs to engage now and not hang back and wait until it is fully developed. The best way to create value from graphene and to build new commercial relationships is for business to be in at the beginning,” Mr Baker says.
The industries most interested in the potential of graphene include aerospace, consumer electronics, space and coatings.
In a very limited way, graphene has already been brought to market, for example Head, the sports equipment maker, used the material in a range of tennis rackets used by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. However, a much-touted light bulb – which was supposed to be launched last year – is still awaited.
And some sceptics are saying that the UK is already losing the race to exploit the material its scientists discovered. Other nations are making great strides with graphene, with almost 13,000 graphene-related patents now lodged – the bulk coming from Japan, Korea, the United States and China. (It is not possible to patent graphene itself.)
Samsung, which sees great value in it for its flatscreen TVs, tablets and smartphones, holds 500 patents alone. “We don’t want to wait 40 years for the first applications to be commercialised,” Mr Baker says. “It is a race, it is about getting to market first but with the right value.
“The race is on to make the best graphene at the lowest price. Yes other countries have got thousands of patents, but if you argue about the quality of those patents, we have the core intellectual property [12 published patent applications] around the methodology,” he says.
“A lot of people are experimenting with graphene but they don’t understand the chemistry. That is why we have 250 researchers working alongside industry and business to bring the science to market.”
One problem is that graphene can be bought in rolls, in single layers and in multiple layers – all of varying quality. Scientists and those in industry want to iron out that variability, so that major commercialisation can proceed.
Mr Baker says the NGI will have as many as 50 partners in industry and manufacturing in the next two to three years. One company, Morgan Advanced Materials, has put two of its engineers and some of its equipment into the NGI and invested about Â£1m. Morgan’s people, who have decades of expertise developing carbon composites, will work with the scientists to optimise the relationship between the science and the manufacturing process.
Over the next year, the sector that is most likely to see graphene products come to market is in the area of inks, coatings and paints.
Jon Mabbitt, the chief executive of Applied Graphene Materials (AGM), runs one of the businesses that is hoping to develop graphene as a “super additive”.
The company, based in Redcar, North Yorkshire is a spin-out from the nearby Durham University in the north-east of the country. AGM listed on the junior AIM stock market in 2013 and has established a commercial large-scale production facility.
Mr Mabbitt also describes graphene as “revolutionary” or “disruptive” technology. “Where it comes into its own is when two or more of its base properties can be used together,” he says.
Mr Mabbitt is working with the Formula One industry where it could be adapted to make racing car bodies lighter and stronger. AGM’s first products are likely to be in coatings for ships.
“By putting less than 1 per cent of graphene into primers for ships you can prevent barnacles building up on ships’ hulls. Graphene is also a natural lubricant so that reduces the hydrodynamic drag on a ship’s hull, which improves its fuel efficiency. So graphene could both reduce corrosion of the ship, leading to lower maintenance costs, while improving its operating efficiency,” he says.
Regarding what Mr Mabbitt calls “the patent landgrab”, he admits that the UK is not as good at this as other nations.
But he insists it is more about quality rather than quantity. “The UK is much more switched on to being able to retain and exploit new technology than it was 20 years ago. We are in a better position now and there has been good investment from the government in graphene.”
Applications in medicine are also being developed. In the future graphene could be a medium for drug delivery or treatment for cancer. “Potentially you might be able to programme a graphene cell to go into a body and stop a cancer cell from mutating. In the nearer term, it could be used as a ‘smart’ bandage, an adaptive contact lens or even as a replacement limb or joint,” Mr Baker says.
Last month, researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Trieste showed that graphene does not affect the functioning of human nerve cells. That may make it suitable for the electrodes used in deep brain implants for diseases such as Parkinson’s.
The race to exploit graphene is heating up. The European Union has launched a €1 billion (Dh4.09bn) research fund and recent data from the UK government reveals that China now has 29 per cent of the worldwide patents.
Undoubtedly it will be hard for the UK to hold on to its lead but, by funding scientists and engineers to keep working on developing graphene technologies, British politicians are hoping that the UK will have done enough to take some of the profits as well as the research glory.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter