A bright spot amid dimmed hopes for graphene
It is possible, though not advisable, to use a kitchen blender to make the most wondrous material known to science. Put in half a litre of water, a splash of detergent and up to 50g of graphite power. Blitz it and watch in awe as flakes of graphene appear in suspension.
By all accounts, this superstrong, lightweight, impermeable, highly conductive, flexible and transparent two-dimensional form of carbon, first isolated more than a decade ago at Manchester university by Sir Andre Geim and Sir Konstantin Novoselov, was going to oil the wheels of the next industrial revolution. The £61m National Graphene Institute was set up at the university, a pillar of the government’snorthern powerhouse initiative designed to spread future spoils more evenly across the country. Companies such as IBM and Samsung raced to bag graphene-related patents; more than 9,000 were filed in 2014. The world awaited a new generation of semiconductors, batteries, electronics and miraculous materials.
It is fair to say that things have not gone to plan. An energy-saving lightbulb was supposed to be the first UK graphene product to hit supermarket shelves last year but the investment to speed it from laboratory to ceiling did not materialise in time. The excitement around this lightbulb, with its echoes of Thomas Edison and the spirit of restless inventiveness that he represented, has dimmed although there are hopes that the product will go on sale this year. Measured against the Gartner hype cycle, which describes how technologies mature, graphene languishes in the “trough of disillusionment”, having previously scaled the “peak of inflated expectations”.
In truth, the expectations for graphene were always inflated. The discovery or development of novel materials often predates their killer application by decades or even centuries. Diamond-like carbon, a non-crystalline form of the element, was going to revolutionise the manufacture of transistors when it was developed in 1970s. That never happened but it now coats the hard disks on millions of computers.
Last month, researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Trieste showed that graphene does not affect the functioning of human nerve cells. That might make it a better material than silicon or tungsten for the electrodes used in deep brain implants for diseases such as Parkinson’s.
There are other things that slow down commercialisation, such as standardisation. The Graphene Council, an umbrella body for academics and companies, points out that it can be bought in rolls, single layers and multiple layers of varying quality and that this variability needs to be ironed out as commercialisation proceeds.
Still, a period of hysteria followed by a spell in the doldrums can be a good thing. Damped expectations allow new investors to enter a competitive market. Another unexpected bonus is that an obsessive focus on one geographical region can spur scorned neighbours into action.
Sandwiched between the prosperous south and the northern powerhouse lies an area that might one day become known as the Midlands generator. Anxious not to be forgotten as politicians look north for innovation, a consortium of six Midlands universities, the British Geological Survey and several industrial partners has set up the £180m Energy Research Accelerator, an exciting testing ground for future energy technologies. The government put in £60m; the other £120m comes from industry and academia. The universities involved, including Nottingham, Birmingham and Aston, boast strong engineering reputations and long-established industrial links.
One of the ERA’s targets is to rethink “cold” energy used in cooling systems, for example in the food distribution chain and for data centres. At the moment, cooling is generated rather expensively by electricity (or diesel in lorries); cryogenic liquids, such as liquid nitrogen, might be a cleaner option.
Another focus is geothermal energy, the energy locked inside the Earth that, for example, gives rise to hot springs and geysers, and which could be tapped for domestic use.
Sir David Greenaway, vice-chancellor of Nottingham university, said last year that the Midlands was “at risk of being seen as somewhere decision makers flyover between the south and the north”. Today, when he looks skywards, he can wryly note that the aircraft wings are not yet made of graphene.