Graphene has astonishing potential. Don’t waste it

Britain may be this material's birthplace, but we must work hard to hold the lead

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Graphene must surely be one of the most exciting developments in modern science. Indeed, the substance is so extraordinary that it sounds too good to be true – a super-flexible sheet of carbon, just a single atom thick, which is not only the thinnest and strongest material yet known but also conducts heat, light and electricity while being impermeable to gas.

We have two scientists at the University of Manchester to thank for graphene. What began with Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov playing around with Scotch tape and a block of carbon graphite turned into the discovery of the so-called “miracle material” (and a joint Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010).

Now, of course, the race is on to put graphene to use. Even the more sober predictions read like science fiction. From cheap desalination filters to solve the world’s creeping water crisis, to next-generation electronics with foldable touch-screens and ultra-speedy biodegradable processors, to super-strong but super-lightweight cars and aeroplanes, if just a fraction of graphene’s potential is fulfilled it will change the world. And that is without even considering either the biomedical or the military possibilities. Nor are researchers hanging back; in 2012 alone, some 10,000 papers were published on the subject.

Britain may be the birthplace of graphene, but we will still have to work hard to hang on to our global lead as scientists and entrepreneurs across the world dash for competitive advantage. The good news is that real efforts are being made to bridge the long-standing gap between university research and commercial products that so often leaves the UK lagging behind, for example, the US. The Government has stumped up more than £60m, and graphene research centres are under construction in both Manchester and Cambridge.

But there are already signs of progress. Yesterday, Applied Graphene Materials – a spin-off from Durham University – became the second manufacturer of the material to list successfully on the stockmarket this year. Both its founders’ ambitions and investors’ belief in them are wholly justified. Graphene’s potential is limited only by our imaginations.

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