Graphene, the wonder material discovered a decade ago, could soon be used in false teeth as it emerges out of the lab and into consumer products.
Manchester-based 2-DTech aims to use the two-dimensional layer of carbon – which is super-strong, light and electrically conductive – in structures that bind teeth to gums in dental implants. Reinforcing polymers with graphene would also ensure they heat up and cool down quicker.
Nigel Salter, 2-DTech’s managing director, said it was an example of its desire to get products to market in the next year. It has an £80,000 grant from Innovate UK, formerly the Technology Strategy Board, to work with EvoDental, a Liverpool dental implants business.
“There’s a real buzz and enthusiasm to use graphene and get it out there – it’s just a question of how,” said Mr Salter.
Graphene could make aircraft lighter, smartphones flexible and solar panels more efficient. Investors have poured money into graphene companies. Multinationals such as Samsung, the Korean consumer electronics group, have spent tens of millions on research.
Though at present the material can be produced only in small quantities, 2D-Tech, a University of Manchester spinout, hopes in the medium term to move from milligrams to tonnes.
Aravind Vijayaraghavan, a Manchester university academic and consultant to 2D-Tech, said: “A big sheet of graphene is very fragile. Processing it is a big challenge. Making a large quantity of extremely high quality graphene is a challenge. There is still a huge amount of things we don’t know. Every day we are finding new properties.”
There are three ways to make it: strip a single atom layer of carbon from graphite; extract it by passing a gas over a metal plate; or crush graphite to create a paste. So far, it is mainly used in electro and thermally conductive inks and coatings. Professors Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov of Manchester university won the Nobel Prize for the “sticky tape” method in 2004.
Dr Vijayaraghavan said: “Manchester is still miles ahead of anybody else.”
Versarien, an AIM-listed specialist materials business, bought 85 per cent of 2-DTech for £440,000 in May. It raised £5.5m in April in an oversubscribed placing to fund the deal and hopes to use graphene in sensors, batteries and solar panels.
On Friday, it signed a collaboration deal with the National Graphene Institute, a £61m centre part-funded by the government that opens next year.
James Baker, business director of the NGI, said he thought of graphene as “10 years young”. The NGI has 50-100 approaches a month from industries that want to know more. “I believe what we are doing isn’t guaranteeing the success but increasing the probability of success of commercialising.”
Manchester will also host the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre, a £60m investment backed by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi.
Mark Rahn, a partner at MTI Ventures, which has invested in several graphene businesses, said: “The UK is great at invention and less good at commercialisation. I think the things the UK government has done in graphene have a really good chance of changing that.
“It is a huge area. It will be involved in electronics, materials, medical devices. . . There is a very good chance Manchester will be world leader but it will be one of many leaders.”
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