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Why industry is ready to pounce on graphene opportunities

Posted on 24/10/2017

Andrew Wilkinson of Graphene Enabled Systems says many businesses are poised, ready to pounce on the opportunities graphene could bring.

Graphene has attracted much media hype since its ‘discovery’ at the University of Manchester in 2004. Even the aspiring tycoons in the latest series of The Apprentice are getting in on the act, with one of the groups choosing the name ‘Team Graphene’ because of the material’s strength and “because it’s a pretty snazzy tool”. Lord Sugar quipped that it sounded “like a northern energy drink with gravy in it”.

Joking aside, graphene has been presented as a ‘wonder’ material with the potential to revolutionise manufacturing across a wide range of applications from composites to sensors, electronics to wearables. It is claimed to make products faster, stronger, thinner and more flexible. If this is true, then surely manufacturing firms are investing heavily in developing better products using graphene or similar 2D materials?

“The truth is many aren’t”, according to Andrew Wilkinson of Graphene Enabled Systems (GES), a dedicated graphene and 2D materials commercialisation company, wholly owned by the University of Manchester. “For many businesses and their directors, the risks of failure associated with very new materials are unacceptably high. Nobody wants to stand up in front of their board and support a project where the return on investment is uncertain, the competitive advantage is unclear and the manufacturing costs are a mystery. Instead, CTOs often prefer to wait, ready to pounce when it has proved it has promise.”

Andrew accepts that this cautious approach from industry is understandable, which is why GES are working on a strategy to increase business confidence and de-risk the adoption of these materials. GES’ mission is to create a cluster of profitable ‘spin–out’ businesses in the UK, bridging the gap between fundamental research taking place at the University and the more immediate needs of industry.  They do this by working closely with the University’s research base, carrying out market studies to understand the competitive environment, designing and manufacturing product demonstrators and by producing business plans and sales forecasts. This intelligence helps businesses and investors make better-informed decisions about whether to adopt new materials.

“Anything that de-risks a decision for a customer or investor, whether internal or external, will greatly increase the chances of the technology being adopted”, says Andrew. “Therefore, the model is valid not only for 2D materials but for any new or untested technology. Perhaps this can be part of the solution to helping us capture more economic value from the world-leading research that takes place in the UK.”

GES is currently working on a wide range of commercialisation projects based on science and IP coming out of the University of Manchester. It believes that many of these will lead to new UK based spin-outs and industrial partnerships. Current projects include the development of new ultra-robust sensors and variable-force touch interfaces, a new family of light-weight composites, graphene enhanced elastomers, new textiles and yarns, printed electronic devices, filtration systems, graphene manufacturing equipment and highly energy efficient x-ray equipment.

Whilst few would contest graphene’s abilities to enhance products, it has faced despondency from some commentators questioning its market value. Deloitte have said that the deployment of graphene faces three barriers; ease and scalability of manufacturing, high cost of extraction from graphite and uncertainty of the material’s application over the long term. It suggested firms would do better to experiment with graphene and accept that the biggest short-term use is composite materials.

Whether you’re ‘Team Graphene’ or not, one thing seems sure: there are commercial opportunities available and with more research and investment, business confidence can only increase in the long term.

Join KTN’s Graphene and 2D materials Special Interest Group and stay up to date with the latest news and insight, plus receive invitations to events and information about funding.

If you liked this article, see also: How the wonder material graphene is being used in the real world

and also Innovate UK’s introductory video on graphene.