The race to harness graphene heats up, as UK opens new research center

The UK doesn’t really have an answer to Silicon Valley, but ‘Silicon Fen’ – the area around Cambridge – comes closest out of the various British tech hubs. There’s a lot of interplay between business and academia there, which is why it’s notable that the renowned University of Cambridge is about to open a dedicated graphene center, aimed at finding ways to manufacture the stuff on a mass scale.
It’s not hyperbole to say graphene is an amazing substance. Successfully made for the first time less than a decade ago by University of Manchester researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who have since received both a Nobel prize and knighthoods, graphene is an atom-thick layer of carbon with properties we are only starting to understand.
Here’s a brief rundown of some of things graphene represents:
• The best electrical conductor, at room temperature
• The best thermal conductor, even more so than carbon nanotubes
• The strongest material, despite being the thinnest
• The stiffest material, despite being the most ductile
The main reason people are so keen on the stuff is that the benefits of making smaller and smaller silicon-based electronics will soon break down at the nano-scale. Quite simply, we need a replacement material, and graphene ticks a lot of boxes. There are also huge implications for wearable and printable electronics. According to Lux Research, the graphene market was worth $9 million in 2012 but will be worth $126 million in 2020 — depending on how quickly we see graphene-based products come to market, that may be a conservative estimate.
So how did the researchers make it back in 2004? By applying adhesive tape to graphite and peeling it back really carefully (seriously: the tape dispenser is now in the Nobel museum). But, while that provides an amusing genesis for a substance that may very well take over from silicon, it’s not a great way to make graphene in bulk. And while IBM(s IBM) is working on making graphene-based semiconductors and others are developing batteries using the stuff, the UK is finding itself left behind in the race to actually productize graphene (PDF).
Which is why, last month, the UK government ponied up £21.5 million ($34 million) to stimulate graphene research there. Now we’re seeing how that’s going to be used, as the University of Cambridge today announced that a new Cambridge Graphene Centre will open its doors on 1 February. This is in addition to the University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute, which also shares in the government cash and will open in 2015, and further work being carried out at Lancaster University.
“We are targeting applications and manufacturing processes, and broadening research to other two-dimensional materials and hybrid systems. The integration of these new materials could bring a new dimension to future technologies, creating faster, thinner, stronger, more flexible broadband devices,” Professor Andrew Ferrari, director of the new Cambridge center, said in a statement.
Industry is also involved in the Cambridge Graphene Centre – companies such as Nokia(s nok), Dyson, Philips, Plastic Logic and BaE Systems have put in an extra £13 million.
This is all about making graphene a commercially-available reality, so the center’s work will focus on coming up with reliable manufacturing processes. This isn’t easy with a two-dimensional substance, and the team hopes chemical vapor deposition (CVD) will work for graphene as it has for other materials such as diamond and carbon nanotubes. As CVD is also regularly used for depositing silicon carbide in today’s chip industry, there would be a continuity advantage to consider there.