27 November 2020

2D or not 2D

Graphene is a material made up of carbon atoms arranged in a two-dimensional hexagonal pattern. It was first isolated from graphite, the material used to form the ‘lead’ in pencils, in 2004, by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester (UK) who, in 2010, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.

At only one atom thick, mono-layer graphene is the thinnest material in the world, with a reported thickness of 0.225 nm¹, and is often described as the first two-dimensional material. Additionally, graphene possesses a number of highly desirable properties. It is the strongest material ever discovered, some 200 times stronger than structural steel. James Hone, a mechanical engineering professor, said “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap”². The properties of graphene can be tuned to act as an insulator, a superconductor, or anything inbetween³.

Together, these characteristics mean that graphene is a very useful material for a wide range of applications, ranging from its use in distilling alcohol⁴, in foldable smart phones⁵and in light bulbs⁶. Due to the number of uses of this ‘super material’, it is predicted that the global graphene market could reach over US $1 billion by 2027⁷.The University of Manchester did not file a patent application for graphene when it was initially discovered. At the time of its creation in 2004, the work was deemed to be at too early a stage with no commercial interest⁸.

However, the University of Manchester quickly became aware of the huge potential of graphene and is now home to the National Graphene Institute (NGI), which was officially opened in 2015. The institute cost £61 million to build, £38 million of which was provided by the UK government. With more than 80 companies already partnered with the University of Manchester working on graphene applications, the NGI will enable academics to work alongside industry as they innovate further.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the number of graphene patents and patent applications has significantly increased as the global hype surrounding this material has grown. The United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) published a report in 2015 describing the worldwide patent landscape relating to graphene⁹. According to the report, there are around 600 patent families worldwide relating to graphene with a priority date in 2009, around 1,250 with a priority date in 2010, around 2,500 with a priority date in 2011 and over 3,500 with a priority date in 2012.

This indicates a significant increase in interest and resources in the sector. The UKIPO report notes that there has been an almost exponential increase in worldwide patent publications since 2006 and this is consistent with graphene first having been isolated in 2004 and the typical 18-month lag between filing and publication of a patent application. This exponential growth shows no signs of abating. For instance, a search of Espacenet returns 62,823 patent families, 44 of which were filed in the name of the University of Manchester.

It will be abundantly clear that interest in this material is not limited to University of Manchester. In fact, according to the UKIPO’s report, the University of Manchester was ranked 163rd in relation to the size of its graphene patent portfolio and the top filer was Samsung. Additionally, it has been reported that Chinese applicants filed more than 50% of the total patent applications relating to graphene between 2004 and 2018¹⁰.

Additionally, since 2012, commercial products using graphene have started to become a reality¹¹. Accordingly, companies as diverse as Samsung, IBM, Fujitsu and Head Technology GmbH are all filing patent applications concerned with graphene. Looking at the various patent portfolios, it appears that graphene may one day form an integral part of many touchscreen devices, energy storage devices, transistors, semiconductors, lubricants, inks, cars and even sporting goods.

In conclusion, due to its unusual properties, graphene is a highly versatile super material, and so it is no surprise that there has been a significant increase in the number of patent applications concerned with graphene in recent years. However, not many products incorporating graphene are currently commercially available. The volume of patent applications therefore reflects the investment being made in the technology by large multinational companies.

It is predicted that as methods develop to improve the process of manufacturing graphene, and thereby reduce the material’s costs, many companies will begin to reap the rewards of their investments as an abundance of products incorporating graphene are released onto the market. Additionally, the number of patent filings is likely to continue increasing as companies attempt to maintain their edge over the competition while exploiting this extraordinary material.