Graphene quality will trump quantity, says British IP firm

By Laura Syrett
Published: Friday, 22 February 2013

Graphite miners target patent partnerships for market-wide applications

Quality, not quantity, will determine who wins the race to harness the potential of graphene science, according to British consulting firm CambridgeIP, which last week published its IP Insights Graphene report.

First discovered in 2004 by physicists at the UK’s Manchester University, graphene science has seen a surge of patents filed since 2007, and the pace of research has accelerated in the last twelve months.

“Asia, particularly South Korea, has seen an explosion of graphene patents, and the majority of this research has focused on developing methods for manufacturing graphene”, Quentin Tannock, chairman of CambridgeIP, told IM.

CambridgeIP’s league table of graphene research bodies includes academic institutions, large technology corporations and a number of small companies who are working to unlock the value of graphene.

The material is a single layer of carbon atoms with remarkable strength and conductive properties, originally produced by peeling off layers from blocks of graphite using scotch tape.

While most of the smaller inventors tended to be based in the US, Chinese and South Korean research is principally being conducted by large corporations, Tannock said.

Asian nations are fronting the charge – China has 2,204 published patents compared to only 54 in the UK – but Tannock thinks it is a mistake to judge leadership in this area by sheer volume.

“The important thing is to look at the quality of the research being done”, Tannock said, adding that it was only a matter of time before the industry began to see “clear winners” in the graphene field.

Tannock also noted that although there are over 7,000 published patents for graphene, a significant proportion of the research in this area remains shrouded in secrecy.

“Some companies will never publish their patents, and (...) there are probably many very valuable ideas out there that haven’t been disclosed”, he said.

Miners muscle-in on graphene

Researchers at the Chongqing Institute of Green and Intelligent Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in west China have succeeded in making their first 15-inch layer graphene together with a seven-inch graphene touch screen.
Much of the research that has yielded the existing tranche of graphene patents has been conducted using mass-produced synthetic graphite, such as Acheson graphite.

But with several new sources of natural graphite set to materialise within the next two years, junior mining companies are striving to position mined material as a viable, cost-effective alternative to synthetic graphite.

According to Paul Gill, CEO of Canadian graphite junior Lomiko Metals Inc., the best way for natural graphite producers to establish meaningful relationships with the graphene industry is for junior miners to pool funding with graphene start-ups.

Lomiko recently signed an agreement with US-based Graphene Laboratories Inc., a company which manufactures and sells graphene products, which will involve Lomiko supplying graphite from the Quatre Milles project in Quebec for conversion testing over two years.

Gill thinks that the best approach to secure a foothold in the industry is for graphite producers to put their name on as many production methods and uses for graphene as possible, rather than targeting a small number of bespoke purposes.

“Applications are so varied – from computers with graphene chips, to supercapacitors for power storage, power transmission and water filtration, to coatings and paints as well as aerospace uses”, he said.

“Quantity is always best because [otherwise, you risk focusing on] what may be the right product at the wrong time (...) You never know when a product is going to catch on, or for what reasons”, he continued.

Gary Economo, CEO of prospective mining firm Focus Graphite Inc. and fledgling graphene company Grafoid Inc., which has so far identified over 50 potential graphene projects, agreed that having a broad footprint in graphene science is important, but said that the key to the material’s universal acceptance is cost.

“If graphene were to be adopted by an automobile manufacturer as a lightweight substitute for steel and aluminium, the cost of those graphene-infused components must be competitively priced with traditional metals”, Economo told IM.

Focus intends to supply Grafoid with natural flake graphite mined from the company’s Lac Knife deposit in Quebec, Canada, an arrangement Focus believes will position the two companies as leaders in the graphene industry.

“The main feature of leadership in the graphene space (...) is developing the know-how and capacity to assist graphite producers by testing their materials”, Economo said.

“We see 2013 as a breakout year”, Economo added, predicting the first raft of graphene-based consumer products will emerge on the market within months.

The graphene industry

Much of the emphasis in graphene research to date has been on producing low volumes of high quality material for use in applications such as touch-screens and bio-sensors, according to CambridgeIP’s chairman.

He added that although production methods form the bulk of patents, there is plenty of existing knowledge to support downstream applications for the material thanks to a decade of research into carbon nanotube technology.

Tannock said that the recently-announced €1bn ($1.35bn*) of funding awarded to European graphene projects by the European Union’s flagship Future Emerging Technology (FET) initiative was a positive step for the industry, but that more money will eventually be needed to sustain the initiative’s momentum.

“Ideally, this funding will come from industry”, Tannock said. “Hopefully, the FET scheme will act as a spring-board to securing this buy-in”, he added.

*Calculated February 2013

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