You may have read about the latest miracle product – graphene. The scientists who have done the most celebrated work on this are Andre Geim, a Russian born British/Dutch scientist, and Sir Konstantin Sergeevich “Kostya” Novose, a Russian/British scientist – both from the University of Manchester. Although they won the Nobel Prize for their work in 2010, the media bandwagon has only just taken off.

So what is grapheme? Mr Geim told ‘Nature’: “It’s the thinnest possible material you can imagine. It also has the largest surface-to-weight ratio: with one gram of graphene you can cover several football pitches (in Manchester, you know, we measure surface area in football pitches). It’s also the strongest material ever measured; it’s the stiffest material we know; it’s the most stretchable crystal. That’s not the full list of superlatives, but it’s pretty impressive.”

It has applications in the pharmaceutical business, and maybe one day will be the stuff that computer screens are made of. Screens made of graphene will be so flexible you will be able to fold them in half, and then again, and then again.

It is tempting to say it will transform the world, but there are lots of new products and designs out there at the moment that have the potential to change the world.

And since most of the great break-throughs in our understanding of this material had a strong British connection you might say it represents the pinnacle of British achievement. Except you might retort it might not even be the pinnacle of achievement at the University of Manchester. Another team of researchers at the university have developed what they claim to be the most advanced molecule machine in the world; that’s a man-made molecule that can make man-made molecules   See: The molecule that makes molecules and three stages of Darwinian evolution 

So which is the best innovation, and which best illustrates British ingenuity? It is like asking: which was the best miracle, feeding the 5,000 from two fishes or five loaves?

But there is a puzzle.

Why is that so few of the patents related to graphene are held by British companies? There are 2,204 Chinese patent entities for graphene; 1,160 US entities, but just 54 British entities.

Well in 2010, in an interview with ‘Nature’, Mr Geim said: “We considered patenting; we prepared a patent and it was nearly filed. Then I had an interaction with a big, multinational electronics company. I approached a guy at a conference and said, ‘We’ve got this patent coming up, would you be interested in sponsoring it over the years?’ It’s quite expensive to keep a patent alive for 20 years. The guy told me, ‘We are looking at graphene, and it might have a future in the long term. If after ten years we find it’s really as good as it promises, we will put a hundred patent lawyers on it to write a hundred patents a day, and you will spend the rest of your life, and the gross domestic product of your little island, suing us.’” That’s a direct quote.

He continued: “I considered this arrogant comment, and I realized how useful it was. There was no point in patenting graphene at that stage. You need to be specific: you need to have a specific application and an industrial partner. Unfortunately, in many countries, including this one, people think that applying for a patent is an achievement. In my case it would have been a waste of taxpayers’ money.” See: Andre Geim: in praise of grapheme 

This column has been pretty critical of the whole concept behind patents before. See: Time to put an end to patents?   And: The new industrial revolution needs collaboration and perhaps fewer patents 

If it could be shown that patents encourage innovation then let’s have more of them.

More often than not they hold it back, and if Mr Geim is to be believed, perhaps they take money from innovators and give it to those whose contribution is modest.

©2012 Investment and Business News.

Investment and Business News is a succinct, sometimes amusing often thought provoking and always informative email newsletter. Our readers say they look forward to receiving it, and so will you. Sign-up here 

© Investment & Business News 2013