A significant chapter of our modern history is written on silicon chips, a saga that started in the early 1970s. Is the sequel going to be written on graphene chips?
Because of the physical properties of graphene it is one of three theoretical choices as a building block for microchips. Germanium was tried in the early 1970s and found lacking. Silicon won. But now, superthin, superstrong, superflexible, and superfast as an electrical conductor, graphene offers the potential to displace silicon the way the automobile obliterated the horse and buggy.
According to pundits graphene will move swiftly from the research laboratory to the marketplace. As of 2011 there were over 10,000 research papers published on graphene. The European Union is funding a 10 year 1,000 million euro research program on graphene. South Korea plans investments of $350 million on commercialization efforts and the United Kingdom is investing £50million.
In the 1970s the Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco became the Silicon Valley as silicon chip and computer factories replaced apple and avocado orchards. But how far are we from renaming the Silicon Valley the Graphene Valley? The answer lies in the mass behavior of the lab-coated scientists and graduate students and how fast they file for patents, an indicator of market readiness.
In the innovation cycle, scientific research shifts from fundamental work to practical applications, hence patent applications. Fundamental research is funded by governments, which impose stern conditions on scientists to publish their research to secure grants.
This leads to increased activity in peer-reviewed journal publications. The real sign that a new field of research is about to hit the market is when scientists begin filing patent applications instead of publishing research papers.
Between 2007 and 2012 the number of annual patent filings on graphene with the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) has increased from 20 patents to over 500 patents annually (Figure 1) whereas patent filings dealing with silicon has declined from 10,000 to 5,000 (Figure 2). This data teaches us that silicon research is slowing down while graphene research is speeding up, leading to novel commercial applications at the rate of more than one a day, probably outcompeting silicon research for research funding.
How does graphene research compare to the past history of silicon research? Between 1970 and 1978 there were less than 25 new patents filed annually although the tech industry was already well entrenched in the Silicon Valley (Figure 3).
In 1983 when the desktop computer made the front cover of Times Magazine as The Machine of the Year no more than 353 patents on silicon were recorded with WIPO. In comparison, WIPO recorded the 353th patent filing on graphene in the fourth quarter of 2011 (Figure 1).
Our current state of knowledge on graphene applications is comparable to the state of knowledge of silicon application in 1983, the year the computer entered our collective consciousness to become arguably the single most important tool in modern history.
However, the adoption of graphene by the marketplace may be much faster than the expansion of the silicon chip in past decades.
The silicon-based industry has already deployed trillion of dollars in manufacturing and marketing infrastructure.