Graphene hype starts to become reality
Graphene is a two-dimensional form of carbon, with a hexagonal structure just one atom thick. Until now there has been a lot of hype about potential mind-blowing technologies but not a lot of end product. The FT's Andy Bounds reports
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis. Produced by Daniel Garrahan
It's stronger than steel, but flexible. It's superconductive but transparent. Graphene is a two-dimensional form of carbon, just one atom thick, with a hexagonal structure. But where are the mind-blowing technologies we were promised? The ultra-light aircraft, or folding smartphones. There's been a lot of hype and not a lot of end product until now.
In northern England's Lake District, fell running enthusiasts are testing the latest range of shoes from Innovate. The shoes' large protruding grip is designed for running over muddy hills. And the company claims mixing the rubber soles with graphene makes them 50 per cent stronger and 50 per cent more elastic.
The sports industry has been known for coming up with some gimmicks over a period of time, but graphene is really meaningful. And how we know that, we're working with a university. So that university stamps on the product and says right, this really does perform and deliver the 50 per cent improved durability.
The university is Manchester. It's here that graphene was first isolated. The city is already home to the National Graphene Institute and in December it will be joined by the £60m pound Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, or GEIC. It's where companies will partner with academics to test graphene before taking products to market.
This vast cavernous space at the University of Manchester looks much like a factory, and it's where businesses will come in a few weeks' time to take graphene and put it into products that could transform our everyday lives. It's part of Manchester's bid to remain at the forefront of the graphene industry worldwide.
On the university side, there's about 14,000 students studying in the field already. Three of the companies that have formed part of the partnerships with the GEIC have brought new jobs in. We're seeing that. Seeing new collaborations. So of course our Chinese friends, friends across the UK, and collaborations across the markets that this will become a supply chain to automotive and airspace industries around the north-west.
But Britain has a poor record at turning its ideas into products, and China is determined to win the race to commercialise graphene. Analysts say that along with Taiwan it produces three-quarters of world supply. Global sales now of $40 million should hit $300 million a year by 2027. China also holds half of graphene patents. David Banks is chairman of one of the companies working with the GEIC.
Historically, we've either failed to do it, or it's taken an incredible long time. Normally 25 years, when a new material is discovered. We have got to make that happen quicker. The UK, through the universities, is still at the forefront. Significant amounts of money have been invested by China, also through Manchester, but at home they're spending billions of dollars a year in this area, which we obviously can't compete with.
So far, graphene has been limited to improving existing materials, such as the way Innovate mixes it with rubber to improve shoe soles. So when will we see applications that change the world?
Graphene as a new material has still got some challenges. But what you're seeing with graphene is graphene is an additive, if you like. So adding graphene to a rubber, graphene to a resin, graphene as a coating. And I think the excitement is still to come. Then you've got this spiral development, which is probably more attractive to industry, that today they can get a small benefit, maybe in the two- to five-year year window they can get a significant benefit, or maybe the five to 10, they can get more of that disruptive type of benefit.
The excitement around graphene hasn't gone away, but it has cooled as engineers struggle to produce it in a form that can be easily worked. And it might be some time till we see it used in truly disruptive applications. Manchester may have a lead, but it's in a global race to bring those products to market.