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3 October 2011

£50m for atomic-scale chicken wire

One welcome piece of news from George Osborne's speech.

By Helen Lewis

Do not adjust your Newstatesman.com but there’s one bit of George Osborne’s speech to the Conservative party conference that’s worth praising: his commitment of £50m to research into the “wonder material” graphene. It was part of his package of science-funding announcements, including £145m for supercomputer research and £150m on extra mobile phone masts.

Graphene is a form of carbon in sheets one atom thick, described handily by Wikipedia as “an atomic-scale chicken wire”. It won Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, who are both Russian-born but based in Britain, the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics.

This amazing substance — transparent, an electrical conductor, stiff but stretchy and completely impermeable — could have a huge range of practical applications, for example in solar panels or touchscreens. Some 200 patents associated with it have already been filed.

Since Geim and Novoselov’s groundbreaking research in 2004, the UK has fallen behind in the worldwide race to develop graphene technology (South Korea’s Samsung is particularly keen). But with the research cash, it is hoped that a “hub”, producing large quantities of the stuff, can be set up and staffed with some of the best researchers working today. The location will be Manchester, where Geim and Novoselov both hold posts at the university (and where the Tory party conference is being held). Or, as Osborne called it: “Manchester: where Rutherford split the atom and the Miliband brothers split the Labour Party”.

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Perhaps the new cash will change Geim’s opinion about the coalition’s commitment to science funding. He told the Independent in 2010: “I have no plans to move, but if George Osborne’s axe is as sharp as the rumours tell, we will all be considering moving to places like Singapore, where they spend 3 per cent of their GDP on research — not a paltry 1.5 per cent, which is going to be cut.”

PS. For more on graphene, including the story of how sticky tape was vital to its discovery, there’s a fascinating article by Geim here and a Q&A on the substance here.