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Skyrocketing graphene patent filings signal boom

Rochester Business Journal
August 10, 2012

Although the commercialization of graphene is still in its infancy, it's being hailed as a "miracle material" that may replace silicon in electronic and other devices. It's clearly only the beginning. In June 2012, this headline from Electronics.ca Publications caught my attention: "Global Graphene-Based Products Market to be Worth $67 Million in 2015 and $675 Million in 2020."
 
Electronics.ca Publications is the electronics industry market research and knowledge network. I follow this type of publication regularly, not only for my professional enrichment as an attorney focused on intellectual property but for my personal interest in new technological developments.
 
Through its story, Electronics.ca Publications announced its new report presenting an overview of the global markets for graphene. Those markets include computing/data processing, data storage, displays, antennas, solar cells, sensing and imaging, capacitors and research. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently discovered that graphene "exhibits a novel reaction to light," perhaps leading to advances in night-vision systems and possibly providing new methods of generating solar power. Other potential applications include super-dense data storage, energy storage and flexible touchscreens. While, as the report noted, the commercial market for graphene-based products was essentially zero in 2009-10, commercially significant sales should start to appear before 2015.
 
Locally, graphene research is being conducted by the Prezhdo Research Group of the University of Rochester's department of chemistry and the Nano-Optics Group, an experimental and theoretical research group, at the University of Rochester's Institute of Optics. Xerox Corp. also has invested in the field and obtained numerous patents, including a recent patent for an organic thin-film transistor containing graphene.
 
Graphene was first produced by two physicists at the University of Manchester in 2004. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010 for their groundbreaking experiments. What makes graphene so special is that it can transform from its original two-dimensional honeycomb lattice structure into several different molecular structures ranging from zero-dimensional to three-dimensional. This transformation ability is what makes graphene the strongest, yet thinnest, known material. Graphene took science by storm because it had been thought impossible for the material to exist in a free state. However, it is now understood that graphene's two-dimensional form is closely related to the one-dimensional carbon nanotube structures that are well established.
 
Besides its structural characteristics, graphene's electrodynamic properties also yielded surprising results. Previously, silicon had been the most conductive material available. Now, tests have shown that graphene has even greater conductivity. That, of course, means greater speed. In fact, it is this unparalleled speed that holds the greatest promise for the future of electronics. Because of its structure and speed, graphene has vast potential to revolutionize both the transparent and flexible electronics sectors. According to one source, the future could see credit cards contain as much processing power as a smartphone does today.
 
Despite being the most conductive material in the world, and thus the fastest, graphene does suffer from a byproduct of its speed. Because graphene lacks a band gap (which acts as an inherent switch, telling the material to stop conducting), it faces a major limitation in its potential use in transistors. Therefore, scientists are hopeful but at the same time acknowledge that the verdict is still a long way out on the effectiveness of graphene.
 
While it is clear that graphene does have its limitations, that has not stopped major multinational corporations from investing significant resources in research and development projects in the field. Industry leaders such as Samsung, IBM, Nokia, Intel and Sandisk have all been active in the patent application process. For example, Samsung works closely with top Korean universities and co-owns patents with inventors based at them.
 
While there has been some reluctance on the part of other universities and academics to pursue the patent option, filings have risen steadily as further research and development continue to yield new prospects for the material. As a result of graphene having been identified in a two-dimensional state in 2004, patents skyrocketed from fewer than 100 a year to approximately 1,000 in 2010. Indications are that the number of patents also increased in 2011.
 
It appears likely that universities and major corporations will continue to invest in graphene research in hopes of making new breakthroughs in graphene consumer and manufacturing products. Graphene patents should continue at a steady rate as further development continues. 
 
Laura W. Smalley is a partner in the intellectual property law practice group at Harris Beach PLLC.8/3/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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