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Cash for graphene: the best thing since sliced bread

October 28, 2011

Sliced bread is big business – the equivalent of over 12 million loaves are sold in the UK every day. Now George Osborne hopes that sliced carbon will be just as successful, and he’s found some extra money to make it so. In a business-centric speech at the Conservative Party Conference, the chancellor pledged £50 million to commercialise graphene. But at a time of funding freezes and cuts, where did this new money for science come from?

Graphene is a flat sheet of carbon, one atom thick. It was first peeled off chunks of carbon in 2004 by Dr (now Professor) Kostya Novoselov and Professor Andre Geim at the University of Manchester. This magical material has been hailed as potentially useful in all sorts of places: from mobile phone screens to disease diagnostics to hydrogen cars. Sliced carbon is, it seems, quite possibly the best thing since sliced bread.

Keen entrepreneurs need to read no further to know that this stuff could mean big bucks. And Mr Osborne agrees. In his recent speech, he said that the £50 million “will act as a catalyst to spawn new businesses, attract global companies and translate the value of scientific discovery into wealth and job creation for the UK.”

So Mr Osborne took a look down among the sofa cushions of Whitehall and came up with £50 million to create a graphene research hub among the four which already sit in Cambridge, Exeter, London and Manchester, graphene’s hometown. (In fact, he found another £150 million for supercomputing facilities too.) Several sources have confirmed that this new money comes from underspend across government departments. “It’s separate and additional funding to what was agreed in the Comprehensive Spending Review,” said Matthew Good, a spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. “The chancellor is in the process of looking for underspend.”

A treasury source told Purse String Theory that six months since the start of the financial year, it is becoming clear where some departments are saving money, and since the UK has a strategic advantage in graphene research, it is a good investment.

What a brilliant time for science: while other sectors are forced to make cuts, science receives the excess from those that don’t spend enough. The science community welcomed the announcement cautiously. Dr Robert Parker, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), described the announcement as “good news”. He added: “The RSC hopes it is not a one-off ‘eye-catching’ investment considering how much coverage has been devoted, deservedly so, to the possible applications of graphene in the future.” You’d be forgiven for reading that as a bit of a kick in the teeth to Mr Osborne (even if that is not Parker’s intention). The chancellor is, after all, being scrutinised by scientists who see his £4.6bn ring-fence as the real-terms cut it actually is.

Back at BIS, Good explained that the government, through its research councils, will launch a competition for the £50 million “early next year”. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is working with the Technology Strategy Board to run that competitive bidding process. More details are expected imminently, so the UK’s graphene research centres are likely to start preparing their bids very soon. Although the process will be competitive, the idea is that the £50 million will be divided between a number of successful graphene research centres. Dan Cochlin, a spokesman for the University of Manchester, said: “We would be disappointed if we didn’t get a large share of that money – we have the largest graphene research centre in the UK and the two key researchers.”

A source at the university told Purse String Theory that one centre will receive a slice of the cash proportionally larger than all the other slices, and that that should go to Manchester. Osborne has created the fund, after all, to establish a research hub, which implies a centre with branches. And he made his announcement at the same time as a visit to Manchester’s graphene research centre, when he reportedly “chatted with” the professors about commercialising the substance.

The chatty chancellor believes in graphene, and has put his money where his mouth is. It is not yet clear how long he’ll wait before demanding a return on his investment.

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