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Why the graphene light bulb could switch on a new era of innovation

The new graphene light bulb, designed and developed at the University of Manchester, is the first commercially viable product using the “wonder material” graphene to emerge from a decade of academic research. (The University of Manchester/National Graphene Institute)

Graphene, the world’s “wonder material,” has been talked about and hyped so much ever since it was isolated in crystal form in 2004 that some surely thought it could never live up to its early promise. Now, just a decade after its official discovery and five years after two physicists at the University of Manchester won the Nobel Prize for this discovery, we’re about to see the first commercially viable consumer product using this material: the graphene light bulb.

This could be an important moment in attracting other innovators to experiment with graphene. The first graphene light bulb — a dimmable bulb with a filament-shaped LED coated with graphene — will be hitting store shelves in the UK “within months” at a price point lower than many current LED light bulbs.

While the product itself may not sound spectacular – it’s essentially just a longer-lasting bulb that’s 10 percent more energy efficient and longer-lasting than any that exist on the market today – it could be exactly the type of proof-of-concept to show that people can actually make money with their graphene innovations. And, as a symbol of innovation, what could be better than a light bulb?

In short, the introduction of the graphene light bulb could open the door for the creation and funding of other companies also hoping to make money with graphene. While some products today already include graphene (for example, tennis rackets where the super-strong, super-light material can be used for the racket’s shaft), there had yet to be a stand-alone graphene product, mostly due to the difficulty of making enough graphene to support any large-scale manufacturing efforts.

To speed up that process, Britain has been pouring tens of millions of dollars into graphene since 2010, and the University of Manchester has even re-branded itself as “the Home of Graphene.” A gleaming new $90 million structure on campus – the National Graphene Institute – hopes to become the new hub for the commercialization of graphene, filled with 35 companies and 200 researchers.

The light bulb itself is the intellectual property of a spin-off formed by this new National Graphene Institute, which just opened its doors in late March. The company, known as Graphene Lighting, may even pursue a listing on the Canadian stock market, which would make it the world’s first-ever graphene IPO. Prof. Colin Bailey, a director at Graphene Lighting, told the Financial Times: “People are amazed at just how quickly we have managed to take it to market. Sometimes it takes 20 years to get a new discovery out there.”

Graphene is essentially a 2D, not a 3D, material because it is only one atom thick. As a result, it has phenomenal properties that make it so attractive: it is 200 times stronger than steel, harder than diamond, and more conductive than silicon. In non-scientific parlance, graphene makes electrons go all wobbly. Some of the futuristic ideas that have been floated for graphene have been truly awe-inspiring, such as the creation of a “space elevator” extending skyward to outer space.

As a result, say innovators, new graphene companies could sprout up around medical devices, automobiles, wearable electronics, bendable electronics or water desalination. Not just in Britain but also around the world, where graphene has attracted significant interest in both South Korea and China.

Developing a thriving innovation ecosystem for graphene is critical. Until now, there were companies experimenting with graphene, but none of them had figured out how to commercialize the use of the 2D graphene crystals. And the big diversified industrial companies that could have theoretically developed graphene products earlier — the GEs of the world — are so massive in size that new graphene businesses wouldn’t make a sizable dent in their bottom line for years to come. So the world has waited for someone to lead the commercialization of graphene ever since 1859, when researchers first started looking for the wonder material.

In many ways, the story of graphene illustrates the challenges facing any new technology or material that enters the world claiming to be at the forefront of a “revolution.” Here, you can insert just about any new buzzword from Silicon Valley, where seemingly every new technology claims to lead a “revolution.” However, wanting a revolution and getting a revolution are very different matters.

For a technological revolution to really take place, you’ve got to develop something truly unique, something that represents an exponential improvement to anything that exists today. Then, you’ve got to find a way to commercialize it, bringing it from R&D lab to market. Then, you have to find a successful consumer-facing company that can bring the innovation to the masses, so it doesn’t just wind up as an oddball product that you’d find at the Sharper Image.

Those are three tremendously difficult steps. Yet, Manchester University seems to have achieved the first two of those steps – they’ve got IP that’s Nobel Prize-worthy. They’ve got a brand-new National Graphene Institute that can serve as a hub and incubator for new ideas, helping them get to market.

The last step is what the current crop of graphene innovators hopes to achieve – turn “made with graphene” into a technology buzzword that consumers recognize and look for, the same way that Intel turned “Intel inside” into a trademark for innovation.