UK Falling Behind In Graphene Patent Race

Chemistry, graphene © Oleksiy Mark Shutterstock 2012

While British researchers first identified graphene, its exploitation is shifting to the US and Asia, according to new patent figures

New figures from intellectual property consultancy CambridgeIP show the UK may be struggling to keep up in the race to exploit wonder-material graphene, as patent publications surge in the US and particularly in Asia.

By the end of last year China led the world in the overall number of graphene-related patents and patent applications across to date, with 2,204, or just under 30 percent of the world total of 7,351, according to CambridgeIP’s figures, as reported by the BBC.

China leads

Graphene, which consists of a single layer of carbon atoms, has remarkable qualities of flexibility, strength and conductivity, making it suitable for application in fields ranging from computing to aviation.

It was identified by Russian scientists Andrei Geim and Konstantin Novosolev at Manchester University in 2004, and the British government has committed more than £60m to developing it.

CambridgeIP, which has been publishing graphene patent figures since the beginning of 2012, said that while UK institutions such as Manchester University have accelerated their graphene patent activity, they are overshadowed by major graphene patent efforts dominated by China, South Korea and the US.

The US followed China with 1,754 patent publications, while South Korea has published a total of 1,160 patents and the UK has published 54, according to CambridgeIP.

South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University led the race with 134 publications, followed by China’s Zhejiang University with 97, China’s Tsinghua University with 92, the US’ Rice University with 56, MIT with 34 and finally Manchester University with 16.

Science minister David Willetts said the government is supporting the industrial exploitation of graphene through its financial backing of a new research institute in Manchester and specific projects across UK universities.

“It’s vital we harness the excellent research taking place in our world class institutions to exploit the commercial potential of this astonishing material,” he said, arguing that UK-based research projects will “foster innovation, drive growth and help the UK get ahead in the global race”.

Cross-industry appeal

CambridgeIP argued that because graphene applications cut across industry sectors – including fields such as semiconductors, energy, biotech, polymer science and aviation, as well as information and communications technology – countries and organisations with high levels of integration amongst different scientific and industrial sectors are well-placed to exploit the research.

Samsung, for instance, is a highly integrated organisation and leads in the corporate field with 407 graphene patents, while IBM is in second place with 134.

“Graphene is an extremely complex technology space, requiring a diverse range of capabilities to deliver end-use products, cutting across many industry verticals,” said CambridgeIP chairman Quentin Tannock, in a statement provided to TechWeekEurope. “This complexity and diversity, multiplied across a large number of industry value chains, results in a significant challenge for investors, policy-makers and companies seeking to secure future value.”

Near-term applications

The consultancy noted that corporations including Sony and Nokia have also accelerated their graphene patent activity in recent months.

“Our research indicates that disruptive graphene technologies are likely to be rolled out by large corporations in the near future,” said CambridgeIP in a recent report on the graphene patent race. “For example, while the graphene-based semiconductor chip is still a long way off, there are strong signs that smartphone players, notably Samsung and Nokia, could be incorporating other graphene-based technology into their products relatively soon.”

Likely near-term applications for graphene include flexible touchscreens and improved batteries, according to industry observers.

Professor Geim told the FT last year that the West is struggling to exploit materials such as graphene because of its lack of research institutes, saying he spends 20 percent of his time trying to open up opportunities for collaborate with industry.

“Companies are reluctant to see beyond three or five years. I don’t blame them; they are under such competitive pressure,” he told the FT. “The only way to bring such an enormous and disruptive technology as graphene to the UK is through small capital companies, out of the universities.”

EU and UK research

The European Commission is looking to support EU-based scientific research with a grant of one billion euros over ten years, to be awarded later this month. One of the six short-listed competitors for the grant is the Graphene Flagship Initiative (GFI), which aims to bring academia and industry together around graphene-related initiatives that could be attractive to investors.

The British government has committed to funding a £50m National Graphene Institute in Manchester, and last month announced a further £21.5m toward the commercial exploitation of graphene, with sums going to the University of Cambridge, London’s Imperial College, Manchester University, Durham University, the University of Exeter and Royal Holloway.

The universities will be working with industrial partners including Nokia, BAE Systems, Procter & Gamble, Qinetiq, Rolls-Royce, Dyson, Sharp and Philips Research, which will contribute a further £12m.

In announcing the funding Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said technology invented in the UK should be developed here. “It’s exactly what our commitment to science and a proactive industrial strategy is all about – and we’ve beaten off strong global competition,” he said.

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