Despite it first being isolated at Manchester University, the UK has so far been struggling to make the most of the wonder material graphene, which is being developed for use in everything from mobile phones to lubricants and clothing.
The most recent figures show the UK is responsible for just 1% of graphene-related patents worldwide. In the words of former science minister David Willetts, ‘It’s a classic problem of Britain inventing something and other countries developing it.’
Now a British firm, 2-DTech, hopes to use it to improve false teeth. Alongside dental implant centre Evodental, it’s secured a £150,000 grant from the Government-backed Innovate UK to conduct research over the next year.
Though it existed in theory for years, Graphene was first isolated by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov at Manchester University in 2004 when they used sticky tape to strip away single layers from a block of graphite. They later received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010.
The material’s properties make it sound more like a superhero than a piece of carbon - super-strength, ultra-lightweight, flexible and conductive of heat and electricity. 2-DTech plans to use small discs of graphene to strengthen existing polymers used in false teeth without triggering reactions from the patient’s gums.
‘The combination of extraordinary strength and ultra-thin form means that graphene could be the solution to the problem of coping with the severe operational conditions posed by the human body,’ said Nigel Salter, 2-DTech’s managing director.
‘Looking to the future, this could be the catalyst for the integration of graphene nanocomposites composites into wider array of medical applications such as orthopaedics and implantable electronics.’
One of the biggest problems with graphene thus far is how difficult it is to produce on an industrial scale. Until there's a clear way to make a lot of money out of it, businesses are unlikely to be willing to invest on a great scale to develop a mass production process for graphene.
2-DTech, which is majority-owned by AIM-listed Versarien, is also exploring use of the material in other applications, including sensors, energy generation and electronics. Hopefully it won't be the last British company turning graphene into commercially viable products.