The UK is widely acknowledged to have led research in graphene, and deserves much credit. It now wants to lead commercialization too. The government is making well thought-out moves to help derive value from UK research. If industry and academia take advantage of the opportunities, the UK could well lead the way.

Research has reached the stage where commercial potential is clearly indicated, but we don’t yet know where this potential will first materialize. Aspects of the challenge call for government intervention.

One challenge is that no single UK organization has all the capabilities to take graphene from the lab to a commercial application. The value chain – which includes research, characterization, graphene production, scale up, integration into applications, and production on commercial scales - is long and complex. It involves many players from academia and business.

To turn research into valuable products we need all parts of this chain to work together. The UK Government has recognized this and is stepping in to facilitate. But success also requires willingness by all parties to seize the opportunity.

Better connected

Materials scientists keen to see their research taken further, and businesses looking to see where graphene can benefit them, may be asking themselves a big question: where to start.

The Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) is a good first point of contact for understanding how you can help or find help. The Graphene Special Interest Group (SIG), run by the KTN, has been set up to connect materials scientists with businesses and academic partners, and funders who can help them take their work forward.

On the academic side we have world leading expertise. The National Graphene Institute in Manchester, where graphene was first isolated, has all round capability. The Cambridge Graphene Centre has particular expertise in printed electronics. Imperial College London has excellent capabilities in composites. For characterizing and testing, the National Physical Laboratory is a world leader.

We also have readily available supplies of graphene. Graphene comes in different formats, produced by different companies: small area platelets (e.g. Thomas Swan) and large area graphene (e.g. Aixtron). Others supply production equipment (e.g. Oxford Instruments). These organizations are just a sample of the many players active in the graphene value chain in the UK.

The investment in production is an advance which makes us optimistic about graphene’s imminent potential. The ready availability of graphene allows a wide range of experimentation. But it also presents another issue: what actually constitutes graphene? The near future may see standards set.

Application developers are the next piece of the puzzle. Many have heard about graphene’s potential and are keen to explore what it can do for their business, but are understandably cautious. Government is offering funding to de-risk research projects where companies work with researchers to explore the potential of graphene for their business. Having access to willing and interested materials scientists is key to this being successful.

The opportunities and how to realize them

Commercializing research requires industry to work with academic researchers to turn graphene into something people want. Materials scientists need to recognize that and remain open to collaboration and partnerships.

But we also need industry to play their part. Right now, they are watching attentively - people are literally tasked with monitoring graphene research awaiting the time to jump in.

The government’s first step to help industry benefit from our academic expertise was through a £2.5 million joint Technology Strategy Board and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funding call, which ran through April and May. The call was open to anyone with an idea for how to commercialize graphene, and looked for small projects that test an idea to see if it is worth pursuing.

The funding requires a lead company to partner with others in industry and academia, splitting the workload between them. This helps de-risk the exploration of ideas by industry, whilst ensuring they play an active part in the process.

Additional funding calls can be expected which will explore new application areas and further develop ideas which show promise. The goal is to get materials scientists from both academia and industry to work collaboratively to get a concept to a stage where the company is interested to take application development activities forward from within.

To further support this, the government recently announced funding for a graphene innovation centre, which will bridge the gap between lab research and commercialization. Money was flagged for this in the 2014 Budget. Details are being finalized for the center which will play an important part in turning research into commercial products.

Bringing it all together

Commercialization feels within grasp, but realizing it is not simple. For materials scientists interested in being a part of this revolution, there is extensive help available to find industry partners who can take their expertise forward, and funding to support collaborative projects.

If we are to see commercial graphene-enabled products in the coming years, we need to have all parts of the value chain working together. The UK government has recognized this and has made enabling moves. Interested parties in industry and academia need to do the same.

Nabil Zahlan is head of the Graphene Special Interest Group. For more information visit