Those associated with the UK government’s nanotechnology efforts have often pointed out that the country's first national nanotechnology initiative the UK Department of Trade and Industry’s National Initiative on Nanotechnology (NION) came into existence in 1986—a decade and a half before the United States formed its own National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2001. This historical reminder is seldom told as a matter of pride, but as a cautionary tale. After starting off as a world leader in the field, the UK has fallen farther behind the U.S., Germany, and Japan with each passing year.
Because of this belief that it let a treasure escape out of the front door, the UK government has been determined to not let history repeat itself with its handling of graphene research and commercialization. The British feel a kind of ownership of graphene ever since two Russian émigrés, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, created single-atom-thick sheets of carbon back in 2004 while at the University of Manchester. The UK government is determined to stake its claim in nanotechnology, with graphene as its quarry. To ensure that it gets the most commercialization bang for its development buck, the government began revealing plans last year aimed at making the UK a “graphene hub." And this time they were going to put their money where their mouth was, investing around US $71 million in a single research facility at the University of Manchester. In the past, the UK has been reluctant to invest in nanotechnology even if it meant some of their homegrown companies would move abroad.
Despite bold plans and investments, it was reported earlier this month that the UK had already fallen dramatically behind in graphene-related patents.
Number of Graphene Patent Publications
South Korea entities
United Kingdom entities
SOURCE: Q TANNOCK, CAMBRIDGEIP, 2013
But before the UK—or any other country—throws in the towel and cedes victory to China, it may want to take note of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' (CAS) 2011 admission that the volume of papers Chinese researchers are producing is offset by the fact that many are of low quality. The CAS paper stated:
“But these impressive numbers mask an uncomfortable fact: most of these papers are of low quality or have little impact. Citation per article (CPA) measures the quality and impact of papers. China's CPA is 1.47, the lowest figure among the top 20 publishing countries, according to Elsevier's Scopus citation database.”
Further, Tim Harper noted on his TNTblog: "The UK has a number of companies producing decent quality graphene—a prerequisite for any applications—and the history of nanotechnology shows us that filing huge numbers of patents is no guarantee of commercial success."
Now another UK facility—the Cambridge Graphene Centre located at the University of Cambridge—is set to open next week. Its operating funds come from a UK government grant worth approximately $19 million (£12 million).
It is encouraging that the Cambridge Graphene Centre has secured additional funding from a number of companies, including Nokia, Dyson, Plastic Logic, Philips and BaE systems. But it’s hard to measure at this point whether these types of investments will make a difference in determining whether the UK will be the site of economic success with graphene. After all, outside of some filler for tennis racquets, actual products that take advantage of graphene's special characteristics are few and far between.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.