redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
A steep rise in the number of patents involving graphene, one of the thinnest, lightest, strongest and most conductive materials in the world, reveals a global race to harness the potential of this novel material.
Graphene, which was identified only as recently as 2004, is harder than diamond, a single molecule thick, as flexible as rubber and much more conductive than copper, giving it tremendous potential for applications in energy, computing, medicine, telecommunications and other fields.
According to the latest figures compiled by British patent firm CambridgeIP, the number of patents filed to claim rights over different aspects of graphene has grown dramatically since 2007, with an even greater spike occurring last year.
“Last year, 2012, experienced particularly high numbers of new graphene patent applications around the world, with a relatively large proportion of 2012 graphene patent applications being made in Asian countries especially China and South Korea,” the company said.
As of last month, there were 7,351 graphene patents and patent applications across the world — an extraordinarily high number for a material only recognized for less than a decade.
Chinese entities now hold the greatest number of graphene patents, at 2,204, followed by the United States, which holds 1,754 patents. South Korean entities hold the No. 3 spot, with 1,160 patents, followed by the United Kingdom, a pioneer in the area of graphene research, with 54 patents, of which 16 are held by University of Manchester.
The stakes couldn´t be higher, given graphene´s enormous potential. Among the first likely applications are flexible touchscreens, lighting within walls and enhanced batteries.
A patent is a critical first step in the commercialization of graphene, and the fast growing number of graphene patents demonstrates just how intense the global competition has become.
“Patents are central to business models and business strategies in several of the key potential application sectors for graphene developments,” Cambridge IP said.
“Added to this, many graphene technology systems are complex and rely on other technology systems which themselves may be the subject of patent applications.”
Last month, Britain´s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced $35 million in additional funding for graphene research, bringing the total to $96 million (£60m).
David Willetts, Britain´s science minister, has also identified graphene as a national research priority.
The latest figures show that “we need to raise our game,” he told BBC News.
“It’s the classic problem of Britain inventing something and other countries developing it.”
Perhaps most remarkable in CambridgeIP´s figures is that South Korean-based Samsung leads the corporate field with a total of 407 patents. U.S.-based IBM ranks second, with 134 patents.
“There’s incredible interest around the world – and from 2007 onwards we see a massive spike in filings all over the world particularly in the USA, Asia and Europe,” said CambridgeIP chairman, Quentin Tannock.
Two Russian researchers based at Manchester University, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were among the top scientists behind the original work on graphene. The duo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010 for their groundbreaking experiments.
Geim said that many Western companies lack the ability to pursue research into graphene.
“Industry is more worried not about what can be done, but what competitors are doing – they’re afraid of losing the race,” he told the BBC.
“There is a huge gap between academia and industry and this gap has broadened during the last few decades after the end of Cold War, so I try as much as I can to reach to the industry,” he said.
Indeed, South Korea´s Sungkyunkwan University holds 134 graphene patents, while China´s Zhejiang and Tsinghua universities hold nearly 100 each.
“This is what has happened in last 30-40 years,” Geim told BBC reporter David Shukman. “We killed famous labs like Bell labs. Companies have slimmed down so they can no longer afford top research institutes. If something is happening in Korea it’s because Samsung have an institute – there is nothing like that in this country. They can’t see beyond a 10-year horizon and graphene is beyond this horizon.”