Graphene: Small Wonder, Slow Progress

Biomedicine, electronics and composites are all fields where graphene will have great impact. But how will this ‘miracle material’ become commonplace in society?

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms in a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice. It is the basic building block for many other graphitic materials such as fullerene, nanotubes and the more commonly recognised graphite.

Graphene is the thinnest and purportedly the strongest material ever isolated. It is just 0.33nm thick, almost a million times thinner than a human hair. It is harder than diamond and about 300 times harder than steel. To put this into context, it will take the weight of an elephant balanced on a needle point to break a layer of the substance that is one atom thick.

The tensile strength of graphene exceeds 1TPa (diamond’s tensile strength being only 140GPa). The hexagonally arranged bonds enable electrons to move unimpeded at speeds ten to 100 times faster than in today’s silicon chips. Furthermore, graphene is stable in air, transparent and flexible, as well as being cheap and plentiful.

While the name ‘graphene’ was first cited in 1962 to describe a single carbon layer, it was not until 2004 that graphene’s true potential was uncovered by Professors Geim and Novoselov from Manchester University, when they demonstrated that graphite could be separated into single layers using sticky tape. In just under a decade since then it has been proposed that graphene could enhance existing technologies as well as having the potential to develop new fields of engineering and science.

Graphene has received unprecedented media coverage in the last four years, suggesting that its contribution to technological advancement over the coming decades will be ‘limitless’.

UK universities are at the forefront of graphene and nanotechnology development. In 2011 the UK Government invested £50m in graphene research. In 2013, plans to build the £61m National Graphene Institute in Manchester were unveiled. In comparison, the commercialisation of the material has, to date, been relatively poor.

Key recommendations

Concern is growing among academics that little is being done to encourage UK industry to develop practical uses for graphene. Equally, industry struggles to gain access to large quantities of high-quality material to develop its products.

We strongly support the need to reconcile graphene research with commercialisation, and call upon industry to:

  1. Establish collaborative groups to enable innovation and application to develop simultaneously, while creating a taskforce to focus on mass production methods.
  2. Develop the graphene supply chain along with a coherent strategy for SMEs to get graphene-based technology to market and protect UK intellectual property.
  3. Create a robust strategy for identifying viable applications and engage investors in education and training programmes to reduce investment risk.

Additionally, the government must:

  1. Address the potential skills shortage and urge the Catapult technology centres to continue to assist small businesses in developing technical demonstrators to show graphene’s viability.
  2. Establish a robust public engagement strategy for ‘emerging technologies’.


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