In Britain, a battle to spin great science

In Britain, a battle to spin great science
Senior technologist Dariusz Czolak holds a piece of silicon carbide disk covered with a layer of graphene.

MANCHESTER/CAMBRIDGE, England - It's mega strong, ultra light and super stretchy, and if things work out, a wonder material discovered in Britain could change many aspects of human existence - starting with peoples' sex lives.

Safer and sensually superior condoms may not have been the first thing on the minds of the Nobel-winning team at the University of Manchester that isolated graphene a decade ago, but they may be an early eye-catching use of the new one-atom-thick material.

Billed as potentially the most important discovery of this century, graphene - the thinnest material on earth and 200 times stronger than steel - is also exciting researchers around the world exploring its use in everything from electronics to nanotech drug delivery.

For British science, among the biggest questions is whether graphene's home nation can spin its breakthrough into real monetary gain, or whether - as a Thomson Reuters patent analysis suggests - global big hitters will nip in and grab the market.

The question could not be more timely, as a potential US$100 billion (S$126 billion) bid by US drugs giant Pfizer for its smaller British rival AstraZeneca threatens to upend another long-standing area of British scientific expertise - pharmaceuticals.

A new government-backed US$100 million National Graphene Institute opens next year in Manchester aimed at putting Britain at the heart of a much hoped-for graphene revolution.

GRAPHENE CITY

Its business director James Baker has a vision for Manchester to become "graphene city" - a Silicon Valley-style hub that will become the place to be for everyone and anyone working in the wonder stuff.

"If you get this right, the ecosystem of graphene city could inspire a whole industry, with start-ups clustering around the supply chain and knowledge base," he said in an interview. "Manchester is not unique in terms of graphene research, but if we start to create this cluster, it could become unique."

Yet a Thomson Reuters analysis of worldwide patent filings shows graphene's birthplace is already falling behind, with China and the United States leading the pack when it comes to finding ways to exploit this previously unknown form of carbon.

The organisation with the most patent filings is South Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung Electronics , eyeing graphene's potential in flexible touchscreen displays and other areas.

The story shows the problems facing a mid-sized economy like Britain, with a limited industrial base, striving to monetise its science in an increasingly globalised world.

Britain's US$2.5 trillion economy may still retain a leading position in certain high-tech fields like aerospace and pharmaceuticals but the competition is intense and cross-border corporate deals can change the landscape overnight.

Pfizer's plans to swallow AstraZeneca have sent shockwaves through the life sciences sector, which with GlaxoSmithKline at its helm has been a rare success story for the British manufacturing industry.

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