Some things in science become more interesting only as we discover more about them. Ten years ago, two scientists at Manchester University stunned the world by revealing a new carbon-based material with amazing properties that they made by messing about with lumps of graphite and sticky tape.
They have both since won Nobel Prizes and been given knighthoods. Now one of them, Sir Andre Geim, has led a team that has uncovered another amazing property of this wonder material, which is effectively a new arrangement of carbon in the form of a one-atom-thick crystal layer. As well as being incredibly strong – more than 200 times as strong as steel – and extremely light, graphene conducts electricity extremely well and has a host of potential uses in electronics and in the sphere of new materials for such high-tech industries as aerospace and car manufacturing.
Now it appears that Sir Andre has found another potential use based on graphene’s ability to form a semi-permeable membrane that is porous to positively-charged hydrogen atoms, but to nothing much else. This could prove to be the deal breaker that transforms the hydrogen fuel-cell business, which has been somewhat stalled by the technical limitations.
Even more intriguing is the possibility that graphene may be used to “harvest” hydrogen from the air, providing a new source of carbon-free fuel. Combined with fuel-cell technology, the breakthrough could prove to be as important as splitting the atom in terms of energy.
The Government, and George Osborne in particular, must therefore be congratulated in recognising the immense potential of this British discovery (albeit by two émigré Russians) by sanctioning a £61m National Graphene Institute on the Manchester University campus.
But Sir Andre himself has voiced a note of caution on this visible symbol of scientific excellence; £45m of this sum is going on the building, not on the science. To really capitalise on our academic talent, we need to think even bigger when it comes to investing in our technological future, and that means thinking about people as well as buildings.