How can India own a slice of future
Mar 05 2013
In the 1960s, the valuable properties of graphite changed the way tennis was played. The 1990s saw introduction of carbon nanotubes in construction, and now we have graphene. This material is extremely light (single atom thick and weighs almost nothing), flexible (can be bent and stretched immensely like rubber), very strong and anti-corrosive (200 times stronger than steel and tougher than diamonds), impermeable (so dense that not even a helium atom can pass through) and is transparent (allowing all ranges of light waves to pass through). It has also broken records in terms of thermal conductivity. Interestingly, it has anti-bacterial properties compatible with human cells that can lead to dressings for wounds that heal much faster.
The application potential of graphene is virtually unlimited. Professor Andre Geim, one of the two discoverers of the material in 2004 (and who received the Nobel prize in 2010), says he finds it ‘impossible to single out the most exciting or promising applications. The field is so vast and developing so rapidly that to focus on any particular direction would diminish the magnitude of the whole enterprise’.
A diverse range of companies from various industries and nationalities are moving in quickly trying to create the first-mover advantage. To provide a glimpse of how the race to patent applications is moving, Chinese entities have 2,204 graphene patent publications, US entities have 1,754, South Koreans have 1,160, and UK has 54. Among the firms, nearly 300 companies are involved in graphene research, including IBM, Intel, Pfizer, L’Oreal, Sandisk, Samsung, LG Electronics, Graphene Square, Bayer, BASF, POSCO, BP, Matsushita, Dassault Dynamics, Siemens, Volkswagen, Thyssenkrupp and General Motors, to name a few. Samsung is currently the leader in research (with 60 patents) while Sandisk has roughly 30. As one can see, the applications of graphene could be in any and all industries (and new ones will surely arise). Among the institutions, Chinese universities are the largest publishers of patents in the world (beating the US). BP has committed to establish a $100m graphene research facility in Manchester (where the Nobel laureates work) and aspires that it could become ‘a world centre for graphene research’. China is already the world’s largest manufacturer of this material, even when mass-manufacturing technologies have not yet been perfected.
Thinking Beyond the Horizon
So when the Chinese, Koreans and the Japanese (in Asia) are taking leading positions, where are Indian companies and research institutions in this exciting revolution? Why aren’t cash-rich companies like Reliance Industries, Indian Oil, BHEL, Tata Motors, CIPLA, or other technological or research organisations (including DRDO) into this game yet? It will be of vital importance to their survival and growth to invest at the embryonic stage of industry evolution. But this game requires looking beyond yearly timeframes and deep into the future. Again to quote Professor Geim, ‘many companies lack the ability to pursue research. Industry is more worried not about what can be done, but what competitors are doing — they’re afraid of losing the race’.
This is where the national psyche comes in — we devote extraordinary time on insipid TV debates on inane budgetary provisions (such as higher duty on set-top boxes!), but have no time to discuss issues that could provide us a juicy slice of the coming future. Given this scenario, we will continue to buy the latest and technologically most advanced products and gadgets such as mobiles, lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, solar panels, automobiles, defence equipment such as bullet-proof jackets and stealth aircraft, TV panels, construction, telecom and agriculture equipment, anti-aging cosmetics, tyres, computers and disks, and medicines from MNCs. All these will contain a good bit of graphene in them based on nanotechnology platforms. This is where the present is moving. But can anyone wake up the sleeping elephant called India to be a part of future?
PS: Indians have been making and using carbon nanotubes (although inadvertently) at our homes since time immemorial. The traditional eye-liner and tonic kajal is a double-wall, multi-layered variation of graphene (which is single-atom single-wall thick).
(The writer is a professor of strategy and corporate governance, IIM-Lucknow)