UK's National Graphene Institute in Revolt After Foreign Tech Grab

Researchers at the UK's NGI won't work at the new facilty for fear that their research will be pilfered

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UK's National Graphene Institute in Revolt After Foreign Tech Grab
Photo: The University of Manchester

A technology that, a year ago, was being lauded as the “first commercially viable consumer product” using graphene now appears to be caught up in an imbroglio over who owns its intellectual property rights. The resulting controversy has left the research institute behind the technology in a bit of a public relations quagmire.

The venerable UK publication The Sunday Timesreported this week on what appeared to be a mutiny occurring at the National Graphene Institute (NGI) located at the University of Manchester. Researchers at the NGI had reportedly stayed away from working at the institute’s gleaming new $71 million research facility over fears that their research was going to end up in the hands of foreign companies, in particular a Taiwan-based company called BGT Materials.

A quick look at BGT’s product suite, which includes a number of graphene-based technologies, would seem to support the researchers’ fears. Conspicuous among BGT’s focuses is the use of graphene for LED lighting—which was supposed to be the NGI’s first big breakout application for graphene.

Surprisingly, BGT did not demur when asked by  the Times whether it owned the technology. In fact, Chung Ping Lai, BGT’s CEO, claimed it was his company that had invented the technology for the light bulb and not the NGI. The Times report further stated that Lai controls all the key patents and claims to be delighted with his joint venture with the university. “I believe in luck and I have had luck in Manchester,” Lai told the Times.

With companies outside the UK holding majority stakes in the companies spun out of the NGI—allowing them to claim ownership of the technologies developed at the institute—one is left to wonder what was the purpose of the £50 million (US $79 million) earmarked for graphene research in the UK more than four years ago? Was it to develop a local economy based around graphene—a “Graphene Valley”, if you will? Or was it to prop up the local construction industry through the building of shiny new buildings that reportedly few people occupy? That’s the charge leveled by Andre Geim, Nobel laureate for his discovery of graphene, and NGI’s shining star. Geim reportedly described the new NGI building as: “Money put in the British building industry rather than science.”

Initially, the story of the graphene-enabled light bulb had many people scratching their heads as they wondered how it constituted a breakout commercial application for graphene, with some concluding it was as much good public relations as it was a good innovation. Now it seems that public relations vehicle has turned around and bitten its master.

This kind of story is not how this was supposed to go—not after the UK government invested £38 million (US $53.3 million) in the NGI, with an additional £23m (US $34 million) coming from the European Regional Development Fund. That kind of investment was supposed to turn around what the UK perceived had been its previous lost fortunes in nanotech innovation. The funding entities were determined not to see history—like its Department of Trade and Industry’s National Initiative on Nanotechnology (NION) being eclipsed by the later-starting U.S. (and the Japanese and German) efforts—repeat itself. 

The big opportunity to turn it all around was going to be graphene. The British felt a kind of ownership of 2-D carbon ever since two Russian émigrés, Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, created single-atom-thick sheets of the element back in 2004 while at the University of Manchester. To exploit that sense of ownership, the UK government began revealing plans that aimed at making the country a “graphene hub."  This time, the government was not going to be reluctant to invest in nanotechnology—even if it meant some of their homegrown companies would move abroad.

Now, it seems the government’s eagerness to invest in graphene research—or at least, the facilities for conducting that research—might have ended up bringing it to the same place as its previous lack of investment: the science is done in the UK and the exploitation of the technology is done elsewhere.

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