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UK politicians embrace graphene

Osborne.jpgOn the eve of the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, last year’s winner is receiving a funding bump from the British government. Graphene, honeycombed sheets of carbon just one atom thick, will be the focus of a £50 million (US$77 million) global research and technology hub, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (pictured), announced at today’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester. “I want Britain to be the home of the greatest scientists, the greatest engineers, the greatest businesses,” he said in his speech to the party delegates.

According to briefing documents, the hub will develop technology for a pilot production facility of some sort. It will also include a new doctoral training centre with advanced research equipment. The location of the announcement is apt, since the 2010 Nobel Prize winners, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, are based at the University of Manchester (although the document doesn’t say that this is where the new hub will be based).

“We will fund a national research programme that will take this Nobel-Prize-winning discovery from the British laboratory to the British factory floor,” Osborne declared to applause.

Well, maybe. As my colleague Richard Van Noorden pointed out earlier this year, the real action in commercializing graphene is in Asia at the moment. South Korea alone is investing US$300 million. And Andre Geim himself said in an interview with us last year that taking graphene from the lab to commercialization was an extraordinarily tricky business. In fact, he never patented the stuff because, without a clear commercial use, the patent probably wouldn’t have stood up.

Britain’s not exactly a leader in electronics, and it’s unclear whether this new hub can change that. But it’s possible that the money could lead to some interesting niche applications for graphene, such as electronics that can generate terahertz radio waves.

Still, most of the nation’s scientific community has responded positively to the announcement. Together with £145 million for high-performance computing, the new initiative shows that science remains foremost in the minds of top-level politicians, even during times of austerity.

Credit: Conservative Party


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