Graphene, the material with many extraordinary properties, has swallowed around £120m in UK government funds, but development and commercialisation is proving tortuously slow and increasingly dogged with disappointment.
So concerned are MPs with the lack of progress that late last year they conducted a series of hearings via the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.
Before MPs sat three anxious figures: Baroness Neville-Rolfe, Minister for Energy and IP, Dr Sharon Ellis, director, business innovation – both from the Department for Business – with Paul Mason, director of Emerging Technologies at grants agency Innovate UK.
Neville-Rolfe justified the spending on what she said was: "A brilliant British breakthrough, a disruptive technology... we saw need to invest in research, and product development and demonstration."
Graphene may be more conductive than copper and stronger than steel, but no one seems quite sure where such a sizeable amount is being spent. To date some £38m has been spent on the National Graphene Institute, and a further £20m on the new Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, both sited in Manchester.
An additional £40m will go towards a "collaboration and investment fund", said Neville-Rolfe, plus another £50m on a Graphene Applications Centre in Sedgfield, County Durham.
Yet more cash will come from the EU's Horizon 2020 programme, plus £38m in "EPSRC joint funding", plus extra cash expended on graphene research at institutes such as the National Physical Laboratory's National Graphene Metrology Centre.
MPs looked puzzled.
Neville-Rolfe admitted: "It's early days but we're beginning to see products coming through." Frustrated MP Chris Green asked: "What will be first blockbuster product of graphene?"
Mason struggled to name one. "It's difficult to predict. The UK is good at taking high technology and putting it into high-tech applications, e.g. aerospace, may be even pharma. [It could be in] electronics that we don't make here, but own the IP here... Not bulk capacitors for radios... These things take a long time," he said.
Good things come to those who wait
Indeed they do. It is now 13 years since graphene was isolated by two researchers at Manchester University, Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov, a discovery that earned them a joint Nobel Prize.
In fact, graphene has found application. It's been used to strengthen tennis rackets, fishing rods, and even components on drones. One recurring problem has been its production. This deceptively "simple-structured" 2D material has proved difficult to manufacture in quantity. "Batch after batch exhibit markedly different behaviours," one researcher for the National Physical Laboratory told The Reg.
The government, it seems, is finding out the hard way that discovery is very different to commercial potential when it comes to inventions.
First, the status of many patent families based on graphene is now being hampered by "patent trolls" – wherein opportunists are pushing through patents that are close to those being applied for by reputable institutions and researchers.
Much worse, scientists are now certain there are many more 2D materials to be discovered, which may mean the patents expensively established by UK authorities to defend its IP in graphene may end up being worthless.
Academics are exploring elusive materials with exotic names – stanene, silicine and germanene – with French and Chinese scientists taking the lead. Now they think there could be 500 2D materials awaiting discovery.
There is some good news. None of this has deterred a club of brave British companies from taking a risk. In 2015 Haydale Graphene, a nanomaterials specialist, proposed the use of the material in aerospace composite structures to limit the damaging effects of lightning strikes on aircraft.
By combining graphene with other epoxy resin composites, Haydale director Gerry Boyce said: "The ability to develop electrically conductive epoxy resins by incorporating alternate forms of graphene functionalised by our proprietary HDPlas process is a great opportunity for us.
"The ability to add graphene to change one of the fundamental characteristics of the base resin – in this case, electrical conductivity – is a most important development for composite engineers and could lead to a whole new generation of graphene-enhanced composite materials."
In April 2015 the water treatment specialist Arvia Technology developed Nyex – a material that includes graphene – to remove micropollutants and chemicals from water. Arvia's founder, Dr Nigel Brown, said: "This will allow us to treat samples of industrial effluents on a larger scale as we commercialise our technology."
Thomas Swan, a highly successful materials tech firm, and Sharp Electronics are two other companies collaborating with UK universities on graphene research.
Grabbing university startups on the cheap has become a sector sport. Last month the AIM-listed carbide manufacturer Versarien took a majority stake in graphene-based ink product developer Cambridge Graphene – but it paid just £170,000. This early bailout by the latter's shareholders must form the lowest-ever sales price for any recent Cambridge spinout company.
Whether it signals the final chapter in UK University enthusiasm for graphene remains to be seen. Owned by its management and Cambridge Enterprise, the commercialisation arm of the University of Cambridge, the spinout may help Versarien in its quest to "commercialise the market opportunities for graphene both in the UK and internationally".
Neill Ricketts, chief executive of Versarien, earlier hinted that his firm was happy to mop up graphene-related assets in the UK for bargain prices. Back in April 2014 it had bought 2-DTech, a Manchester University spinout that had developed the capability to produce graphene using a chemical vapour deposition process. Versarien paid only £440,000 in total.
Thankfully this hasn't deterred academics across the UK from stepping up their efforts to pinpoint graphene's magical properties and bring them to the real world. Also in January 2017, the University of Exeter's Centre for Graphene Science announced it had developed a new way of building entire device arrays directly on the copper substrates used for the commercial manufacture of graphene.
According to Professor David Wright of Exeter's Engineering department: "Our new approach is much simpler and has the very real potential to open up the use of cheap-to-produce graphene devices for a host of important applications from gas and biomedical sensors to touchscreen displays."
Secondly, among the cleverest research teams is Professor Robin Nicholas's group at Oxford University. They are using graphene and carbon nanotubes as electrodes in a new generation of photovoltaic devices, in collaboration with fellow Oxford academic Henry Snaith and his spinout company, Oxford Photovoltaics. With a 22 per cent efficiency, these PV devices have equalled the current world record, Prof Nicholas confirmed.
If this, and other developments, can shed any light on the elusive potential of graphene then expect planners, economists, horizon scanners and civil servants to breath a hefty sigh of relief. ®