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The race for graphene commercialisation

16 January 2013

Is the UK, once more, going to sit back and watch others reap the rewards of a home-spun invention?

In a speech given to the Royal Society in November last year, Chancellor George Osborne reminded his audience that it was the government's intention to invest some £50m of public money into UK graphene research, to ensure that the invention of Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of Manchester University was also going to be properly exploited within these shores.

Earlier this month, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) announced £21.5m in funding for research projects that will focus on how to enhance the 'manufacturability' of graphene.

The University of Cambridge receives more than £12m for research into graphene flexible electronics and optoelectronics, while Imperial College London has been awarded over £4.5m for equipment and research into engineering with graphene for multi-functional coatings, fibre composites and graphene three-dimensional networks.

Professor Tony Kinloch at Imperial is working with a number of aerospace companies, including Airbus, to investigate the use of graphene in advanced structural composites as an alternative material to dissipate energy after lightning strikes, while Professor Clare Gray at Cambridge University and Professor Robert Dryfe at Manchester University (which is awarded £1.9m from this initial EPSRC pot) are exploring potential uses of graphene in super-capacitors and batteries for renewable energy storage applications.

Meanwhile, Proctor and Gamble and Dyson will be collaborating with Professor Karl Coleman, an award-winning chemist at Durham University (which receives £1.6m of the EPSRC funding), to explore the potential applications of graphene composite - particularly for thinner, stronger material applications.

And only last week, The University of Manchester unveiled an artist's impression of its proposed £61m National Graphene Institute, which will be funded from the remainder of George Osborne's promised £50m, plus a grant of £23m from the European Research and Development Fund.

This is all encouraging news, of course, given the UK's long past record of coming up with great ideas and letting the rest of the world get on with developing them. Nevertheless, the question arises: is it all rather too little, too late?

CambridgeIP's graphene patent landscape research for the period to December 31 2012 shows a surge in graphene patent filings around the world since 2007, just three years after Geim and Novoselov first isolated the material at Manchester University.  Last year saw particularly high numbers of new graphene patent applications, with a relatively large proportion of global graphene patent applications being made in Asian countries.

CambridgeIP chairman, Quentin Tannock said one of the striking features of the graphene patent landscape is the marked increase in graphene patent activity in Asia over recent years, especially in South Korea and China. However, he believes the race for value from graphene is far from over.

"UK inventors have a well-deserved reputation for being particularly innovative and the UK has enormous potential to secure future value in the graphene patent landscape," he argues. "Additional funding for graphene R&D in the UK, and a growing awareness of the importance of patents to business models in many of the end-use sectors for graphene, will doubtless help UK based players secure most value from their graphene innovations.”

The volume of graphene patents around the world and the relatively few graphene patents in the UK, where the material was first isolated, have given rise to concerns that the UK may lose out in the global graphene commercialisation race.

But it's not all doom and gloom. CambridgeIP analysis reveals several key graphene patents from UK based players, with Manchester University, for one, having increased its graphene patent application rate over the past two years. 

A forthcoming Cambridge IP Insight Report ‘Patenting flatland: Graphene’ will address key questions, trends and features of the graphene IP landscape. To request access to the report, click here.

Les Hunt

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