02 July 2013

#Cambridge – now with added #graphene

We may be a bit slow on the uptake – what’s new – but it was news to us that there was a “Cambridge Graphene Centre”. The name first appeared at the beginning of the year in the many thousands of papers squirreled away here over the past decade or so. Even Google is relatively sparse on the place. So it was slightly surprising to read Cambridge Graphene Centre and Plastic Logic announce partnership.

It was not news that Cambridge was working on graphene. Four years ago, a chat while waiting at a bus stop on the university's West Cambridge site – lots of shiny new research establishments and building sites – got us following the wonder material. A young PhD student said that her supervisor had set her to work on graphene. If Cambridge was keen to unleash PhDs on to the material, then the subject must be worth investigating.

Since then the university has made little impression on the graphene front, unlike Manchester, for example, which is a formidable PR machine for graphene, with its relentless stream of papers and press releases to go with them.

The Cambridge press release on the deal with Plastic Logic does not tell us much about the origins of the centre, or even when it opened for business. (Appears to have been at the beginning of 2013.) It seems odd that a university as self confident, and self glorifying, often for good reason, as Cambridge didn’t make a big deal about the creation of a new centre.

The best pointer to the history of the site is a single sentence on the Plastic Logic site. This gives us a date in January that leads to the university’s press release Graphene: Taking the wonder-stuff from dream to reality. Here we also read that it gets money in the shape of “a Government grant worth more than £12 million”.

It seems that the centre’s focus – someone needs to proofread the Home Page – is “the central challenge of flexible and energy efficient (opto)electronics, for which graphene and related materials are a unique enabling platform”. This explains why Plastic Logic, a spinout from the university a few years back, is interested. As the company’s name suggests, flexible electronic displays is its game.

You can get an idea of what is happening on graphene throughout Cambridge by checking the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and its backing in the area. The pages Support by Research Area in Graphene and Carbon Nanotechnology, shows 45 grants with a total value of £53,439,336. (Don’t you love those detailed numbers?) Cambridge has eight grants listed worth nearly £20 million, including £6,752,299 for a  Doctoral Training Centre in the Assembly of Functional NanoMaterials and NanoDevices. This makes the university, as in many areas, the biggest recipient of the EPSRC's largesse.

As an aside, on the EPSRC list check Professor Mike Kelly’s ‘small’ project on Manufacturability versus Unmanufacturability and its promise to “develop a set of rules or guidelines that define the boundary between what is actually manufactureable at the nanoscale on the basis of the various techniques used in the fabrication process and what is intrinsically unmanufactureable”. That just shows that Cambridge harbours has some interesting thinkers who are willing to poke their noses into strange areas.

Surrounded as it is by seriously good researchers in these and other areas – just check the list of Academic Associates – the Cambridge Graphene Centre can, if it manages to herd that particular crowd of cats, tap into a formidable array of expertise. And with an advisory board that has both Hermann M. Hauser and (Lord) Alec Broers as members, the centre can clearly make itself heard in high places.

Hauser and Broers can also help with the centre’s avowed interest in the applications of graphene. Both move in circles that thive on the idea that it is important to turn research into money, and that this does not happen by magic. So they can add weight to the centre's statement that “facilities and equipment have been selected to promote alignment with industry”.

When it comes to getting research out of the labs and into the marketplace, it is also worth remembering that, thanks to the work of Dr Stephen Bragg, a member of the family of illustrious scientists, Cambridge started taking technology transfer seriously long before the rest of the UK’s universities.

For years the university, along with Heriot-Watt University, housed one of just two science parks in the country, before every university decided that this was an essential part of any self respecting higher education establishment. And eminent Cambridge scientists such as Professor Sir Richard Friend, as we must now call him, didn’t give a toss when other academics were snooty about their interest in commercialising their research through the creation of Cambridge Display Technology, Plastic Logic and other businesses.

With all this background, if the Cambridge Graphene Centre does come up with anything worth spinning out, it will not have to go far to find people who have already travelled that road. The centre’s own roster of industry partners, unhelpfully presented as a set of logos with little clue of their real involvement, or how much they have chipped in to pay for the place, includes some giants. There is also a minnow or two, including Cambridge Graphene Platform Ltd, with its slogan "Transforming Flexible Printed Electronics" and its promise that it will provide “printable inks derived from graphene and other 2D layered materials”.

The Cambridge Graphene Centre is due to move into its own purpose built facilities later this year. Perhaps that will be the cue for the university to blow its trumpet a bit more loudly.

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