How ‘wonder material’ graphene became a national security concern

UK and China are racing to develop forms of super-strong technology – with potential aerospace and weaponry uses

Last modified on Mon 27 Sep 2021 11.24 EDT

A large shed on an unassuming industrial estate beside Swansea’s River Tawe does not at first glance seem vital to the UK’s national security. The facility, run by a small company called Perpetuus , sits beside a mortuary and a parcel depot.

Earlier this month, the company, which makes graphene – a “wonder material” made of a single layer of carbon atoms – grabbed the attention of the government, which said it would investigate a possible takeover involving a Chinese academic, in a highly unusual move that startled industry observers.

The controversy has shone a spotlight on the global race to develop graphene, suggesting that it may be about to make the long-promised leap from the lab to everyday products, and possibly to military uses as well. In particular, it has drawn attention to China’s attempt to corner the nascent industry, and the Communist state’s reach into British universities developing the technology.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK business secretary, ordered the Competition and Markets Authority to review the planned takeover of Perpetuus Group by Taurus International or any companies associated with Dr Zhongfu Zhou.

According to Perpetuus’s website, which lists him as “chief nanotechnology scientist”, Zhou has doctorates from China’s University of Science & Technology Beijing and the University of Oxford. Zhou, who could not be reached for comment, then became a researcher at Cardiff University and a professor at Aberystwyth University until December 2020, according to a social media account matching his name.

Perpetuus is a minnow, with 14 employees at its main graphene subsidiary and turnover of £479,000 in the year to March 2020, according to company accounts.

Still, it is not difficult to see why China is interested. Graphene’s properties include high electrical and thermal conductivity and super strength: 200 times that of steel. China has 10 separate research zones in China working on the material, with more than 200 companies working directly on the technology, according to Ron Mertens, the editor of Graphene-Info, an industry publication.

Nine miles away from Perpetuus’s south Wales base, another graphene company is racing to find ways of commercialising the material. John-Mark Seymour, the UK site manager of Haydale Graphene Industries, said he believed that the industry was bouncing back from the disillusionment that followed intense excitement for graphene’s prospects following its discovery in 2004.

“It’s had that hype,” he said. “It has been hurt. Now it’s picking up.”

Technicians at Haydale’s site at Ammanford, a small town on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, fill drums resembling washing machines with graphene, a black form of carbon. These are loaded into reactors in which plasma, an electrically charged gas, helps atoms to bond with the graphene layers, making it usable in plastics.

The process takes an hour per batch, and the factory can only make a few tonnes a year. However, that does go some way, as one gram of graphene can theoretically cover an area of 700m2. Perpetuus, which has a director who was also previously at Haydale, also uses a plasma process. Seymour declined to comment on its rival.

Companies across the industry are grappling with the same problem of producing usable graphene at much lower cost, said Richard Collins, an advanced materials analyst at IDTechEx, a research firm. Graphene can still cost $1,000 (£728) a kilo for the highest-quality powders, he said.

Collins’ forecasts suggest that the industry’s revenues could expand from less than $100m (£73m) in 2020 to $700m (£510m) in 2031, although still well short of some excited predictions of an industry rapidly growing to billions of dollars.

“It could have huge political and strategic implications, but it’s still very early stage,” he said.

China has targeted graphene as a key future industry. Its embassy said in 2015 it wanted the UK and China to pursue the “cooperation of giants” in graphene research after a visit to facilities in Manchester from President Xi Jinping. Huawei, the Chinese telecoms manufacturer that has been blocked from the US and UK’s 5G infrastructure on national security grounds, in 2015 invested in Manchester’s National Graphene Institute.

UK-China knowledge-sharing has continued, and Edinburgh and Manchester universities have announced new collaborations in the past two years. However, political concerns about Chinese theft of UK intellectual property have mounted in recent years. In 2018, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a thinktank, claimed China has sent soldiers to British universities to gain knowledge for its military.

Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP who is a prominent China critic, this month said graphene technology should “stay with trusted partners”. The Global Times, a Chinese state tabloid, hit back at the UK’s “flimsy national security justification” for the Perpetuus intervention. “An expected outcome could be that Chinese investors will then have second thoughts when considering business cooperation with the UK,” it warned.

Perpetuus declined to comment, citing legal advice. However, a person with knowledge of the business said Perpetuus was working on technology with potential defence applications, although it may not reach prototype stage for as long as 10 years.

A Perpetuus presentation seen by the Guardian suggests that the company was focusing on biomedical sensors, batteries and “advanced composites”. In the 2015 document it cited “negotiations with several companies” to produce graphene at large scale for battery manufacturers in China. (Perpetuus also holds patents for graphene battery technology.)

The document also made clear the potential military opportunity, with a prominent image of an F15 fighter jet. Meanwhile, “anti-reflective coatings” also referenced could be of interest in stealth aircraft.

Aerospace and weaponry uses have always been an obvious candidate for graphene’s lightness and strength; in August, Haydale disclosed a joint patent with the aircraft maker Airbus for lightning strike protection.

Haydale hopes that a new, larger reactor due next year will allow it to produce hundreds of tonnes of graphene annually, as it seeks to make a profit after years of losses and heavy spending that have led its stock market value to slump to a sixth of its peak, leaving it worth just £32m.

Eventually it aims to produce flexible graphene circuits using newspaper-style presses that will be able to replace the billions of biomedical tests that currently use silver and other expensive metals. Several analysts suggested that sensors could be the launchpad for graphene into everyday use.

“We don’t want to stay in a lab,” said Haydale’s Seymour. “I want this to be a product that you touch 70 times a day.”

Global interest in a Manchester discovery

Graphene was first isolated in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two University of Manchester academics who used Scotch tape to peel off layers of carbon a single atom thick – making the world’s first “two-dimensional” material. The carbon atoms’ strong hexagonal arrangement leaves electrons free to move easily across the layers, carrying electrical charge or heat very effectively. Geim and Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel prize in physics for their efforts.

Potential uses cited by researchers range from condoms to concrete and electronics to aeroplanes. The UK was early in sensing an opportunity, with government investment in graphene that has launched clusters of companies focused on the material, particularly around Manchester.

Other countries cottoned on. In 2014, the European Union launched a 10-year, billion-euro research project, and it is also looking at defence applications. However, by 2017 China had more graphene companies than any other country, outstripping the US, according to research by Fullerex, a consultancy.

Graphene is now relatively widely available, but quality and cost varies considerably between producers. They generally either grow graphene crystals from the bottom up, or strip away layers of pencil-lead graphite. Yet both methods have disadvantages, and producers are yet to crack the challenge of using graphene at an industrial level.

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