American Elephants


Atom-Thin, Stronger Than Steel, A New Super-Material Ignites a Patent Rush by The Elephant's Child

Every time you think that all discoveries have been made, all economic progress is over — comes a wonder material: a substance 200 times stronger than steel yet as thin as a single atom — which has sent “companies and universities racing to understand, patent and profit from the skinnier, more glamorous cousin of ordinary pencil lead.”

The material is graphene, and to demonstrate its potential, Andrea Ferrari recently picked up a sheet of clear plastic, flexed it and then tapped invisible keys, triggering tinkly musical notes.

The keyboard made at Dr. Ferrari’s University of Cambridge lab was printed with a circuit of graphene, which is so pliable that scientists predict it will fulfill dreams of flexible phones and electronic newspapers that can fold into a pocket.

It is the thinnest material known. But it is exceedingly strong, light and flexible. It is exceptional at conducting electricity and heat, and at absorbing and emitting light.

Andre Geim, a Russian-born scientist at the University of Manchester in Britain, and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for isolating graphene. Dr. Geim wanted thin graphite to study its electrical properties. A doctoral student suggested using cellophane tape.”They used the tape to peel off layers of graphite until they got to a layer so thin it was transparent. Not only did it not fall apart, it was strong, flexible and possessed astonishing electrical properties.”

It is still far too expensive for mass markets, it doesn’t lend itself in computer-chip circuitry and scientists are trying to find better ways to turn it into usable form. There are still lots of hurdles, but Graphene is a material like steel or plastic or silicon that can change society.

And the race has begun, as of May, there have been more than 9,000 patent applications for graphene. Companies like Apple, Saab, Lockheed Martin, Samsung, Nokia, BASF SE. The potential uses are as broad as filtering salt from seawater, flexible touch screens, anti-rust coatings, sports equipment like tennis racquets,  DNA sequencing devices, and distilling vodka. Everybody is trying to patent everything, so that you have the option of suing your competitors later and stopping them. Labs all over the world are hard at work, as is the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Dr Geim, the Nobel laureate, has said that “Graphene opened up a material world we didn’t even know existed.” Scientists are looking at scores of other two-dimensional materials with unusual properties.

The Wall Street Journal piece is here, it may be behind a paywall. Watch for news stories about this new wonder material as scientists learn more about its possibilities. Think also of the Alaska Gold Rush and the Oklahoma Land Rush, now we have a Patent Rush — this may be the real Twenty-First Century promise.

geim_postcard  geim novoselov_postcard
………….André Geim………………………………Konstantin Novoselov

 

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[…] have written about the chance invention of graphene by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novosetov at Manchester University when they were playing around with […]

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