Quality, not quantity, will determine who wins the race to
harness the potential of graphene science, according to British
consulting firm CambridgeIP, which published its IP
Insights Graphene report in February.
First discovered in 2004 by
physicists at the UKs 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.
CambridgeIPs 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
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
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 havent been
disclosed, he said.
Miners muscle-in on
Much of the research that has
yielded the existing tranche of graphene patents has been
conducted using mass-produced synthetic graphite, such as
Acheson and Sigma-Aldrich 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
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
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
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
Gary Economo, CEO of prospective
mining firm Focus Graphite Inc. and 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
materials 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 companys Lac
Knife deposit in Quebec, 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
Production methods dominate
Much of the emphasis in graphene
research to date has been on producing low volumes of high
quality material for use high-tech applications such as
touch-screens and bio-sensors.
But the material is also being
investigated for more industrial purposes, such as for use as a
lubricant in drilling fluids for oil and gas extraction.
In March, British biofuels producer
Biofutures International Plc. announced that it would relist on
the London Stock Exchange under the name Graphene NanoChem,
specialising in the manufacture of graphene for drilling fluids
out of biogases such as methane.
This method, for which Biofutures
holds the intellectual property rights, is reputed to be
significantly cheaper than using either natural or synthetic
graphite as a raw material for graphene.
According to CambridgeIPs
chairman, 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 Unions
flagship Future Emerging Technology (FET) initiative was a
positive step for the industry, but that more money will
eventually be needed to sustain the initiatives
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 March 2013