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Blog

Are patents hampering the commercialization of graphene?

By Matin Durrani

Facebook poll

It has become almost a cliché to call graphene the “wonder material”, but this super-thin 2D honeycomb array of carbon atoms boasts some enviable electronic and mechanical properties. Apart from being the strongest material ever measured, graphene is also the stiffest and has an electrical current density a million times that of copper. Hardly surprising then that companies and institutes around the world have been stumbling over themselves to carry out research into this material, which was first isolated through Nobel-prize-winning work at the University of Manchester in the UK in 2004.

But a new report from the intellectual-property consultancy CambridgeIP suggests that the UK might be losing out in the quest to commercialize this material. By the end of last year, companies and institutes in China had apparently applied for or won a total of 2204 graphene-related patents – more than any other nation – ahead of the US, with 1754, and South Korea with 1160.

The most prolific firm in the patent-filing business is the South Korean electronics giant Samsung, with 407 patents and patent applications, followed by the US tech company IBM in second, with 134. The whole of the UK, in contrast, has filed and applied for just 54 graphene patents, with only 16 of those coming from the University of Manchester. UK science minister David Willetts complained that this was “the classic problem of Britain inventing something and other countries developing it”.

But do patents tell the whole story? After all, not all patents applied for actually get granted and many graphene patents may be merely speculative applications either made as a kind of insurance policy, or as shots across the bow to ward off rival businesses from entering the same territory. And even if a company or institute has a particular patent granted, the technology still has to be exploited – plus there is always the danger of having to defend one’s patent, often at great cost.

In the University of Manchester’s case, it is therefore focusing its patent efforts on areas that are likely to be “most useful”, such as scalable manufacturing techniques, coatings and composites, and is seeking only a few patents related to applications of graphene, such as graphene-polymer composites and fluorographene. Continued research is the key, the university claims, because by the time reliable methods for making graphene have been developed, today’s patents may have in any case expired.

But is the huge number of patents on graphene a positive sign that this material could soon find its way into real products that will revolutionize our lives? Or is the fact that big business is snapping up patents likely to hamper the commercialization of graphene?

Let us know what you think by taking part in this week’s Facebook poll

Are patents hampering the commercialization of graphene?

Yes
No

Please feel free to explain your answer by posting a comment on the poll

In last week’s poll we asked you if you felt that university professors have one of the least stressful jobs. The question was inspired by a ranking exercise on the website careerscast.com, which suggested that being an academic researcher is one of the cushiest jobs around. That conclusion had got quite a few scientists pretty steamed up, so we wanted to find out what you thought.

Physics World‘s Facebook followers proved to be fairly evenly split, with 47% of respondents agreeing that being a prof is an easy number and 53% saying no. One poll respondent – Leonardo Paulo Maia – felt our question was too broad-brush. For him, university professors who don’t actually do any research – and presumably are more involved in teaching and admin – definitely do have a relaxing time, even if they might be busy. He felt the really stressed-out people are the active researchers.

But another respondent – Lois Hoffer – was quite clear on her views. In a magnificent 250-word diatribe on the reality of a typical academic’s lot, Hoffer painted a picture of a life with far too much teaching, not enough money to hire a postdoc or student for research, no departmental administrators, complicated European grant applications, no office, plus poor students who jabber away during lectures, don’t know how to take exams and yet still have to be taught, marked and graded.

“Yes the money is good, and the job is for life,” Hoffer concluded. “But lack of stress?? You gotta be kidding.”

Thank you to everyone for taking part and we hope to hear from you again this week.

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