What 'wonder material' graphene will mean for technology

Jonathan Weinberg
The 'wonder material' graphene could revolutionise electronics - but is Britain falling behind? (Image: PA)

It's being hailed as a 'wonder material' - and scientists around the world are racing to find uses for it, with the UK lab that invented it in a 'patent race' against companies in the US and China.

Graphene is the thinnest material ever created – just a single layer of atoms – and is ultra–tough but still flexible and stretchable.

It is 100 times stronger than steel and  it can conduct electricity better than copper.

Tech giants such as Samsung and Sony are already attempting to use it for paper-style flexible touchscreens - and the material could also lead to better solar panels, longer-lasting batteries and even more reliable wi-fi.

Flexible screens will appear first - leading to ultra-thin tablet devices that fold or roll up, creating a new-generation of portable computer, possibly within five years.

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And while countries such as China, America and South Korea have now filed thousands of patent applications in an attempt to lead the way on development, the British government have also spotted the potential.

George Osborne promised £61 million for research in Britain - leading much of that work is Graphene Industries, a spin-off company from Manchester University, where early development of the material took place, earning two of its scientists a Nobel Prize in 2010.

Dr Peter Blake is the MD of Graphene Industries and he also works in researching the substance at the university.

Naturally he believes graphene can revolutionise the manufacturing process but feels it can also go on to produce a major boost for British firms and the wider economy.

He explained: "Early applications with graphene will be around flexible electronics so touchscreens, LCD or organic LED displays, solar panels you can roll onto your roof and new types of energy storage such as batteries.

"Timescales are always difficult to speculate on but we are talking three to five years on the screens, maybe a bit sooner.

"On electronics it can be used for high frequency transistors giving faster data rates for Wi-Fi and more precise radar."

Manchester University is currently one of a number of educational bodies alongside Cambridge and Lancaster universities as well as companies such as Nokia who make up the Graphene Flagship 2012. The body is now competing against five others for a billion Euros of funding to further their work.

But with only 54 of the patents filed from these shores, UK science minister David Willetts has warned the country needs to "raise our game" to ensure others don't take research done here and overtake us in the success stakes.

Dr Blake however believes we are well placed for the future saying: "Britain is very much at the forefront. Many other countries are investing in it heavily, particularly the US and Far East, but the UK and Europe are still at the forefront of the science breakthroughs. It is pretty exciting times.

"In the next few years we'd like to see closer collaboration with companies to solve specific short and medium term problems they have. Graphene has an edge where the unique properties of conductivity and tensile strength come into play."

He added: "I think the increase in investment coming to Manchester and to graphene across the UK means it seems entirely reasonable we can have successful companies based in the UK working with graphene and related materials."

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