A major graphene research facility is to be opened at the University of Cambridge, as the UK seeks to capitalise on development of the atom-thin material. 

The Cambridge Graphene Centre is due to open its doors at the end of the year, after being awarded government funding and backing from major companies such as Nokia, Philips, Dyson and BAE. 

The university has been awarded £12 million funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), with support said to be worth £13 million from a total of 20 private sector organisations. In addition there will be £11 million made available by the European Research Council, earmarked for collaboration between other universities specialising in graphene research, such as Manchester University and Lancaster University.

The aim of the Cambridge facility is to bridge the gap between academia and industry, focusing on development of commercial applications, as well as the production of the material at an industrial level. Staff at the university will begin work at the start of next month, ahead of the full opening of the facility later this year. 

Graphene was originally developed in Manchester University by Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov in 2004, attracting widespread attention to the properties of the material, such as its high conductivity, strength and flexibility.

Since then, researchers across the world have been working on a variety of uses, such as in touchscreen displays and batteries, as well as a potential replacement for silicon in electronics.

Professor Andrea Ferrari, the Centre’s Director, said that the researchers are now moving into the next stage of development, focusing on real world applications as well as looking at other two-dimensional materials, such as carbon nanotubes.

“We are now in the second phase of graphene research, following the award of the Nobel Prize to Geim and Novoselov,” Professor Ferrari said.  “That means we are targeting applications and manufacturing processes, and broadening research to other two-dimensional materials and hybrid systems.”

However Professor Bill Milne, a member of the Centre’s management group, added that there is still much work to be done to realise the full commercial benefits of the material. 

“Graphene has amazing fundamental properties but at the moment we cannot produce it in a perfect form over large areas,” Milne said.

“Our first aim is to look at ways of making graphene that ensure it is still useful at the end of the process. We have to find modes of production that are consistently effective – and there is still a lot of work to be done in this respect.”

Although it was in the UK that initial developments with graphene took place, it has been in labs across in other parts of the world that much of the work to commercialise applications has taken place.

Earlier this month a report highlighted that the UK has lagged far behind China, South Korea and the US in terms of publishing patents for use of the material.  At the same time large tech companies, such as Samsung and IBM, have generated numerous patents using graphene in displays and integrated circuits.

However Professor Ferrari recently told Computerworld UK that the UK still has the potential to lead in certain aspects of graphene commercialisation, as well as in the complicated production of the material.

Meanwhile the government has shown willingness to invest in the material that earned knighthoods for the scientists credited with discovery of the material, with a research facility also being set up in Manchester.