In the 15 years since Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov first peeled off layers of graphite with Scotch Tape to discover the wonder material at the University of Manchester, the city has become a global epicentre of graphene.
The National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester provides a hub for academics, researchers and industrial partners to work together on graphene applications. Research teams at the NGI have collaborated with McLaren to develop the world’s lightest watch and the university’s Professor of Materials Physics Rahul Nair has demonstrated that a derivative of graphene has the potential to be used to filter water and address the challenge of clean water.
The university’s new Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) brings together specialist organisations from around the world to share knowledge and identify opportunities to advance the use of the material.
A graphene ecosystem is developing in the city. A district - “Graphene City” - will be, according to Luke Georghiou, Deputy President and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, “built around the people who will form the world’s first labour market to be highly skilled in 2D materials. Large firms will want to locate where they can access skills and world-class collaborators. Start-up companies and SMEs will face lower risks when they know they can recruit the people they need.”
Graphene was picked out by the 2019 Greater Manchester Independent Prosperity Review as a game-changer for the city: “the city region is now in a position to learn the lessons from work that has been done to commercialise graphene, capitalise on the investment in facilities which has been made, and develop an appropriate partnership between the Government, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, universities and the private sector.”
Graphene does boast remarkable properties. It is one million times smaller than the diameter of a human hair and one million times thinner than paper. It is the strongest material known to man. It is exceptionally thermally and electrically conductive and tuneable - its conductivity can be manipulated. It is flexible (it can extend to 20% of its original length if stretched), impermeable to molecules and transparent.
Globally, the two big challenges are how to scale up its manufacture, and how to ensure its standardisation. Here Britain’s status as a standard-setter also plays an important role. The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has done excellent work in developing accepted answers and in 2017 the first ISO relating to graphene was published.
Just because graphene was discovered here doesn’t particularly impress the Chinese, though. China ranks the strongest in the global graphene industry and according to this article in China Daily, some 3,000 Chinese companies are exploring uses for graphene. Half of the world's graphene-related patents have been filed in China.
The current market is modest in size; the global graphene industry was estimated to be worth $200m in 2018.
But massive and groundbreaking applications will be developed. This is a material that has been discovered by scientific investigation so all manner of experiments are happening. It is being tried from toothpaste to aircraft. There are novel graphene-based devices across a range of fields including photonics, optoelectronics, energy storage and conversion, flexible electronics, sensors, composites and coatings, and biomedical applications.
What is not yet certain are which directions it will take, over what period of time. Its lightness and strength make it an obvious candidate for use in composite materials in the automotive and aerospace sectors. Other areas for early application lie in fields such as anticorrosive paint and energy storage.
There’s a growing raft of innovative British graphene companies - not all of them in Manchester.
Applied Graphene Materials (itself a spin-out from Durham University) is now quoted on London’s AIM market. Its graphene dispersion technology sets new standards in anti-corrosion technology for coatings and paints.
Look out for Vollebak. Founded by twin brothers Nick and Steve Tidball, the company has created the world’s first Graphene Jacket (along with other innovations such as 100 Year clothing, a Plant and Algae T Shirt grown in forests and bioreactors that turns into worm food, and a Black Squid Jacket which mimics the adaptive camouflage of the squid by reflecting every colour in the visible spectrum.)
Other British graphene innovators include Graphene Composites, Paragraf and Advanced Material Development. For Britain to stay competitive in the emerging graphene economy, we will need to show as much flexibility as the material itself.