Dyson, the UK domestic appliances company, and Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate, are among the European companies to join the €1bn-a-year drive to commercialise graphene, the world’s thinnest, toughest and most conductive material.
They are part of a group of 30 partners working with the National Graphene Institute in Manchester, which is leading the UK’s push to bring graphene-based products out of the laboratory and into the marketplace.
It was at Manchester university in 2004 that scientists Sir Andre Geim and Sir Kostya Novoselov first isolated the nano-material, for which they were later awarded a Nobel Prize.
Graphene has a unique chemical structure of endless chains of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb layer one atom thick. Harder than a diamond and many times more conductive than copper, commercial applications for it are being explored across industry including in aerospace, electronics, medicine and even sporting and domestic goods.
“There are huge opportunities for graphene. It will change fundamentally how we make and design things,” says James Baker, director of business at the National Graphene Institute.
Geim has estimated that €1bn will be spent this year finding ways to bring graphene-based products to market.
Baker, who formerly ran the technology commercialisation division at BAE Systems, said graphene would one day be used to make things such as ultra-strong wings for aircraft, although he cautioned such innovations could be a decade away.
“But you will start to see graphene-enhanced products appearing in the next 12-18 months,” he adds. Head, the sporting goods group, has developed a tennis racket used by Novak Djokovic that has graphene in its shaft, which the company claims increases swing weight.
Outside Europe, Baker noted the huge investment in graphene by Samsung, the South Korean electronic giant. The material has huge potential in areas such as foldable screens, high-capacity batteries and ultra-fast transistors.
“Graphene started with curiosity: can I make something one atom thick?” says Baker. “Having done that and evaluated it, now it is time to push the technology further to make a real killer product.”