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Is graphene finally beginning to realise its commercial potential?

Graphene was identified back in 2004 by scientists at The University of Manchester. This led to a surge of interest in this seemingly simple, yet surprisingly fascinating new material. Having exceptional physical and electronic properties, variants of the material have been proposed for a plethora of different applications across a range of technical and commercial fields.

More patent filings

The new scientific and commercial interest in graphene led to a corresponding increase in graphene-related patent applications. While the initial research work was performed in the UK, Asia subsequently invested heavily and jumped ahead, at least in terms of the number of patent filings.

Not wanting to be left behind, the UK government has invested over £100m in recent years to research graphene. However, there has been some frustration that the investment has not resulted in a stream of blockbuster products.

Patience is a virtue in the materials sector

Experts in the materials sector will be well aware that new materials often take a significant number of years to develop into blockbuster products. One industry expert I’ve worked with over many years told me that, as a rule of thumb, new materials can take up to 20 years from first discovery to the realisation of their commercial potential. A sobering thought, given that a patent’s lifetime is that very same duration.

Particular difficulties with commercialising a new material include making the transition between fabrication of one-off, small lab-based samples of variable quality materials to large-scale manufacture of consistent product material meeting tight structural, chemical and functional product specification for downstream end device applications.

Another inhibitor to commercialisation is the requirement to identify end applications where there is a need for the properties of the new material. Further still, a commercial price point must be identified and achieved to ensure a profit can be made from manufacturing and supplying the new material at a price which is acceptable to the market.

Furthermore, developing new downstream product configurations and functionalities to meet the requirements of end applications can take significant time. There can often be resistance from downstream device manufacturers to move away from incumbent materials technologies, particularly at an early stage of a new material’s lifetime, when there is no track record of technical and commercial success in commercial products.

Success is on its way

Some fourteen years on from the initial work at The University of Manchester, only a relatively small number of commercial products have reached the marketplace. However, it seems that a raft of further new commercial products may be on the horizon. These include next-generation composite car components such as those being developed at the University of Sunderland; water treatment apparatus to remove micropollutants from water, like those being developed by Arvia Technology; filtration systems being developed at The University of Manchester for extracting moisture from air and sodium chloride from seawater to address water shortage issues; and world record-beating photovoltaic devices, such as those being developed by the University of Oxford in collaboration with Oxford Photovoltaics.

Protecting new innovations

Obtaining patent protection is an essential step to turning a profit from a newly developed material. However, it is clear that with commercialisation timescales for new materials being of the same order as patent lifetimes, new materials manufacturers need a carefully crafted patent strategy to ensure that the correct protection is obtained, at the correct time, to capture the maximum value from R&D expenditure. Furthermore, the patent landscape in the graphene sector is already pretty crowded. Whilst I have little doubt that a large number of existing patent applications are of dubious quality and value, care must be taken to thread your way through the mass of existing IP in this sector.

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