Patent race for super-material 'graphene' is underway

A research race between countries across the globe has begun into a substance known as 'graphene', which has properties that could change the world.

by Michael Northcott
Last Updated: 24 Nov 2014

Like the graphite in your pencil (and the diamond in your ring, if you are lucky enough to have one) graphene is a form of carbon. The difference being that in graphene, the atoms of carbon are arranged in a flat honeycomb pattern, to form a sheet of carbon  just one atom thick. 

So far practical applications are a bit thin on the ground, but graphene is likely to make a huge impact on technology in the coming years, as it is thin and super-strong - it would take the force applied by an elephant standing on a pencil to break it. That makes it not only the thinnest substances ever created by man, but also easily one of the strongest.

So, you don’t need to be a scientist to work out why the scientists might be a little interested in this stuff. But there’s the problem: the research into graphene essentially began here in the UK, but thanks to limited research investment we are nowhere near the lead in terms of the number of patent applications taken out on potential uses for it.

China, the US and South Korea are way ahead ahead – the US has 2,204 graphene patent publications, and the UK has just 54, to give you a flavour.

The UK’s science minister, David Willetts, has named graphene as a research priority, said: ‘It’s a classic problem of Britain inventing something and other countries developing it.’

At this rate, it looks like graphene may go the way of the jet engine and antibiotics. British brainwaves turned into foreign profits. 

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