Why Research England is investing in graphene research

Why Research England is investing in graphene research

10 December 2018

Today UK research and industry receives a significant boost, with the opening of the University of Manchester’s new multi-million pound Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre, funded through Research England’s flagship UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF).

The University of Manchester has been home to some of the most impactful scientific breakthroughs – from Ernest Rutherford splitting the atom in 1917 to Frederic Williams and Tom Kilburn inventing the world’s first computer with storage in 1948.

And similar to those landmark developments, the discovery of graphene, by Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov in a University of Manchester laboratory in 2004, is likely to dramatically transform the world in which we live.

That’s because graphene, which Geim and Novoselov first extracted with the help of some sticky back plastic, has a particularly unique set of characteristics. The 2-D material is one atom thin, extremely light and flexible, yet up to 300 times stronger than steel. It also has the potential to conduct electricity with zero resistance, faster than silicon.

Those impressive attributes have led to the prediction that graphene will revolutionise everything from tennis rackets and wearable sportswear to solar power. Multi-nationals like Samsung and IBM are already exploring its potential in the production of high storage batteries and superfast microchips – in an era of smart technology and advanced manufacturing, where the growth of the world’s number of data sensors alone is predicted to grow from approximately 6.4 billion last year to 20 billion in 2020, it’s easy to see why graphene is generating such excitement.

The commercial potential is huge. Reports estimate that whilst the global graphene market is currently worth a relatively modest $200 million it is growing at a fast rate, having doubled in the past year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, China is driving that growth and currently holds a 22% market share, however other countries are moving to develop their research capabilities in graphene, including Singapore, which has established its multi-million dollar NUS Centre for Advanced 2D Materials. In Europe, the EU launched its Graphene Flagship, an initiative set to invest €1bn into graphene research over ten years, and which helped fund the University of Manchester’s first graphene research facility.

With increased global investment and an expanding market, it is vital that the UK, home to where the material was first discovered, maintains its competitive edge and continues to develop facilities that supports world-leading research and development that will unlock the potential of the material.

That’s why the opening of the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre could not come soon enough. The facility, which received £15m in Round 3 of Research England’s UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, will focus on the application and commercialisation of graphene and 2-D materials.

And the University of Manchester is the UK’s natural home for the facility. Since Gein and Novoelov’s 2004 work, which earnt the pair the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, the university has significantly developed its research in graphene. In 2015 they opened the doors to the aforementioned EU and EPSRC-funded National Graphene Institute, and researchers based there have found increasingly novel and innovative ways to exploit the material’s unique qualities. This includes a research team that collaborated with McLaren to develop the world’s lightest watch and, more recently, the university’s Professor of Materials Physics Rahul Nair who has demonstrated that a derivative of graphene has the potential to be used to filter water and address the challenge of clean water.

The story of graphene is very much in its infancy, but as an established international centre for the material, with researchers already conducting some truly innovative work, it is clear that the University of Manchester will be at the forefront of realising the potential of this extraordinary material, to the benefit not only of Manchester and wider UK, but the entire world. The new Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre will be crucial to supporting that work.