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Cambridge Graphene Research Centre To Open Doors In 2013

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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The £25 million project could bring the wonderful material to the mass market

The University of Cambridge has announced it will establish a Graphene Research Centre in the ‘Silicon Fen’ area, in order to streamline manufacturing of the useful material and help turn it into flexible, wearable and transparent electronics.

The Centre will start work from 1 February, with research facilities opening before the end of the year. It will be financed by a £12 million government grant, and a similar amount contributed by 20 industry partners, including Nokia and Philips.

Recent study by intellectual property consultancy CambridgeIP suggests that the UK is falling behind countries like China, US and South Korea, as far as the number of graphene patents is concerned.

To the next level

The University of Cambridge has been at the centre of graphene research ever since the material was first made in the UK. Graphene is a one-atom thick sheet of pure carbon, arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern. It was first described in 1962, but actual samples were only produced in 2004 by researchers Geim and Novoselov from University Of Manchester, who received a Nobel Prize for their experiments six years later.

Microscope, research © kurhan, Shutterstock 2012Graphene is exceptionally strong, lightweight and flexible, and has conductive properties, anabling electrons to flow faster than they do in silicon. “The integration of these new materials could bring a new dimension to future technologies, creating faster, thinner, stronger, more flexible broadband devices,” wrote Professor Andrea Ferrari, the director of the Centre, on the University of Cambridge website.

At the moment, growing sheets of graphene is still a very difficult and expensive process. The University hopes that by bridging the gap between academia and industry, and offering access to state-of the-art equipment, researchers will be able to improve manufacturing and develop new applications for the material.

For example, one of the projects at the Centre will focus on a method called chemical vapour deposition, which has already opened up diamonds, carbon nanotubes and gallium nitride to industrial scale production.

“The process technology will open up new horizons for nanomaterials, built layer by layer, which means that it could lead to an amazing range of future devices and applications,” said Doctor Stephan Hofmann, specialist in nanotechnology.

Research, lab © alice-photo, Shutterstock 2012Initially, the Centre will be financed by a £12 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), along with £13 million contributed by 20 industry partners including Nokia, Dyson, Plastic Logic, Philips and BaE systems.

“Graphene’s potential is beyond doubt, but much more research is needed if we are to develop it to a point where it proves of benefit to society as a whole,” said Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

“The pioneering work of Cambridge engineers and scientists in fields such as carbon nanotechnology and flexible electronics, coupled with our record working with industry and launching spin-out firms based on our research, means that we are in a unique position to take graphene to that next level,” he added.

Last year, Chancellor George Osbourne announced the creation of an additional £21.5 million government fund to support graphene research in the UK universities. Overall, the government investment into futuristic material to date stands at more than £60 million.

Despite early progress, Britain seems to be falling behind in the graphene race. Figures from intellectual property consultancy CambridgeIP released earlier this month show that China currently leads the world based on the number of graphene-related patents (2,204), followed by US (1,754) and South Korea (1,160). UK has published just 54 graphene patents so far.

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