It is stronger than steel. It is harder than diamonds. It is more conductive than copper. And as if those characteristics are not amazing enough, it is also thinner than a sheet of paper.
In fact, it is so thin you need the most powerful microscopes in the world to see it. You have to get right down to the atomic level, since this material is only one atom thick.
It’s graphene. And it’s not just the newest chapter in technological development; it’s a whole new volume.
Graphene is, very simply speaking, an ultra-thin slice of graphite, a carbon mineral related to coal. According to Wikipedia, the term graphene applies “only when … individual layers are discussed.” That is, individual layers of graphite no thicker than one atom wide.
In graphene, carbon atoms lock together to form a honeycomb-like mesh, like an atomic-scaled-down version of chicken wire.
Although graphene has been known since the invention of X-ray crystallography, it wasn’t until 2004 that it was first isolated as a one-atom wide plane by a pair of physicists at the University of Manchester.
For their breakthrough, Andrei Geim, a Russian-born British-Dutch physicist, and Konstantin Novosolev, a Russo-British physicist, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010, as well as knighthoods.
Graphene’s superior conductivity of electricity and ultra thinness could easily find plenty of applications in electronics, including medical devices. Its flexibility could also see it used in “rollable” computer and tv screens.
Yet as widespread as the applications can potentially be, it is so far ahead on the fringe of new technology that there really isn’t very much out there compatible with it. It seems to be a little too far ahead of the rest of the pack to really fit in—kind of like Da Vinci stuck in the 1400’s.
“For example,” ZDNet addresses the incompatibility issue, “graphene’s ability to deliver terahertz frequency radio could be applied to imaging, yet today’s component supplies only cater to engineers specialising in x-ray optics at one extreme and ultrasound at the other.”
ZDNet quotes Professor Jari Kinaret of the Department of Applied Physics at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden:
“[Graphene’s] somewhere between two existing technologies and there is a shortage of components that can function in that frequency range, so it has not been fully developed yet.”
Thankfully the “Graphene Flagship”, headed by Kinaret, was recently organized. The program was awarded $1.35 billion in research funding in the European Commission’s Future And Emerging Technology Competition.
“In this flagship programme,” Kinaret announced, “we have the people who are interested in the materials production, people who make components, and people who take the components and integrate them together.” Their purpose, as Kinaret put it, “is getting all the players to play together.”
So who are some of these big players blazing new trails through the uncharted territory of graphene technology?
ZDNet lists Nokia (NYSE: NOK), Philips and STMicroelectronics (NYSE: STM) as early contributors to the project, as well as “aircraft manufacturer Airbus and energy firm Repsol.”
As for specific industries, “The first place graphene is expected to land,” the report identifies, “is in sports equipment, such as tennis rackets; [and for] exploiting the material’s light, strong and flexible properties, there are also applications in aerospace, cars, [and medicine].”
But perhaps the best indication of which companies could be the first to embrace graphene is the long list of patent applications incorporating the new technology.
BBC News reports that according to UK-based patent consultancy CambridgeIP, “there were 7,351 graphene patents and patent applications across the world by the end of last year.”
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By far the most eager patent applicant is South Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung with 407 patents, followed by second-place International Business Machines (NYSE: IBM) with 134.
As by country, “Chinese institutions and corporations have the most [patents] with 2,200 – the largest number of any country and clear evidence of Chinese determination to capitalise on graphene’s future value,” reported the BBC. “The US ranks second with 1,754 patents, [while] the UK, which kick-started the field with the original research back in 2004, has only 54 – of which 16 are held by Manchester University.”
Yet because the technology still requires much more development, a number of research institutions are competing with one another, as the chart shows:
Source: BBC News
Professor Geim, one of the two physicists who helped isolate graphene in 2004, laments the lack of funding and research facilities in Western nations, causing them to fall behind other farther-sighted global researchers.
“Industry is more worried not about what can be done, but what competitors are doing – they’re afraid of losing the race,” Geim told the BBC reporter. “There is a huge gap between academia and industry, and this gap has broadened during the last few decades after the end of Cold War. So I try as much as I can to reach to the industry.”
“This is what has happened in last 30-40 years,” Geim explained. “We killed famous labs like Bell labs. Companies have slimmed down so they can no longer afford top research institutes. If something is happening in Korea it’s because Samsung have an institute; there is nothing like that in this country [referring to Britain].”
“They can’t see beyond a 10-year horizon,” he laments, “and graphene is beyond this horizon.”