In early October, the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced plans by the government to invest £50 million (about $80 million) in a new graphene-based R&D center. The center, to be called the Graphene Global Research and Technology Hub, will be located at the University of Manchester.
The location in many ways is a tribute to the past and ongoing work by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, who discovered graphene at the University of Manchester in 2004 and were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Geim and Novoselov’s pioneering work has allowed them to attract a talented team and stay at the forefront of this field, where there are a lot of ideas for commercialization being brewed.
While no timetables are being proposed in regard to real commercialization opportunities, Osborne, according to a university news release, told attendees of a Conservative Party Conference, “…We will fund a national research program that will take this Nobel-prize winning discovery from the British laboratory to the British factory floor…We’re going to get Britain making things again.”
In the same release, the university, itself, goes on to predict, “The development of the Hub will capitalize on the UK’s international leadership in the field. It will act as a catalyst to spawn new businesses, attract global companies and translate the value of scientific discovery into wealth and job creation for the UK. The center would help develop the technology to allow manufacture on a scale that would open up the promising commercial opportunities, incorporating a large doctoral training center and advanced research equipment.”
To be sure, there are many other graphene research efforts, public and private, in the UK and around the world. Responding to the news about the funding for the Manchester hub, a story at Optics.org notes, “Though it is home to the graphene discoverers, when it comes to future commercialization of the technology the UK will face stiff competition from both competing academic institutions and many of the world’s largest technology companies.”
Already several big-name companies, such as IBM, Hitachi and TDK, have received patents for novel graphene-based devices. But, as is usually the case, having a patent and having a commercial success are unrelated events. While there is a lot of promise, there is still a long way to go in fundamental research and, at the other end of the spectrum, basic processing and application methods.
Given the interest and competition, the £50 million investment could easily be dwarfed if not carefully targeted. Along these lines, the Optics.org story discusses the views of another UK graphene researcher, Karl Coleman (University of Durham), and reports, “Coleman thinks that manufacturing ought to be one of the priority areas for the future technology hub, and also points out that graphene applications go beyond the high-profile areas of electronics, displays and aerospace. ‘[We] would like to see the hub include what we sometimes call the low hanging fruits, such as capacitors, conducting inks and composites, to name just a few, that are likely to be commercialized much sooner,’ he said.”
On the other hand, Geim and Novoselov do have a high-profile electronics application in mind for graphene: the elusive replacement for silicon chip. In a paper, “Tunable metal-insulator transition in double-layer graphene heterostructures,” recently published in Nature Physics, their group discusses the creation of double boron nitride—graphene sandwich structures. Essentially, they transferred a graphene monolayer on top of a 20-30 nanometer-thick BN crystal (prepared on a silicon wafer). The graphene was then covered with another BN crystal and another graphene monolayer. Both monolayers were given multiterminal shapes, individual electrical contacts and aligned identically over each other.
According to the authors of the paper (doi:10.1038/nphys2114), the four-layer structure for the first time allowed the behavior of graphene to be studied in isolation from outside effects.
A separate University of Manchester news release quotes lead author, Leonid Ponomarenko, describing the breakthrough. He says, “Creating the multilayer structure has allowed us to isolate graphene from negative influence of the environment and control graphene’s electronic properties in a way it was impossible before. …So far people have never seen graphene as an insulator unless it has been purposefully damaged, but here high-quality graphene becomes an insulator for the first time.”
Regarding the implications of this work, Geim says in the same release, “Leaving the new physics we report aside, technologically important is our demonstration that graphene encapsulated within BN offers the best and most advanced platform for future graphene electronics. It solves several nasty issues about graphene’s stability and quality that were hanging for long time as dark clouds over the future road for graphene electronics. …We did this on a small scale but the experience shows that everything with graphene can be scaled up. …It could be only a matter of several months before we have encapsulated graphene transistors with characteristics better than previously demonstrated.”
That sounds like the kind of confidence the UK’s new graphene hub hopes to leverage.