U.K. chancellor George Osborne (right) with Kostya Novoselov, a University of Manchester researcher who helped isolate graphene in 2004, with the graphene light bulb.
The University of Manchester U.K. chancellor George Osborne (right) with Kostya Novoselov, a University of Manchester researcher who helped isolate graphene in 2004, with the graphene light bulb.

Graphene is among the strongest, thinnest, lightest, and most conductive substances known on Earth. Derived from grafting sheets of graphite down to a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, the much-hyped nanomaterial has already been used in products such as paint, solar cells, and sports equipment. Now it has found its way into one of the most ubiquitous interior elements: the light bulb. 

The new lamp was developed at the University of Manchester, in the U.K., where graphene was first discovered more than a decade ago. Researchers at the university won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for that work. Last week, the university opened the National Graphene Institute (NGI), which will pair with academic and industry partners to research and develop commercial uses for the material.

Canada-financed startup Graphene Lighting is the partner behind the graphene lamp, which features a filament-shaped LED coated in graphene, reports the BBC. The product, which its makers claim offers higher conductivity for a longer life and lower energy consumption than a conventional filament lamp, purports to be the first commercial graphene product from the U.K. It is expected to go on sale later this year. In an interview with ARCHITECT, the university couldn't address the BBC's reports on the lamp's performance and composition—calling the product only a "graphene LED light bulb"—or say in what markets it would be available, other than that the U.S. is in the picture.

"The acceleration of taking this to market has really surprised everyone," Colin Bailey, deputy president and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, told ARCHITECT. "A number of companies have said, 'No, it's too early,' but [graphene] is actually coming to market really quickly in a number of applications."

The National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester in the U.K.
The University of Manchester The National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester in the U.K.

The NGI is currently working with 35 companies on graphene-related products and research, including water-purification membranes, coatings to protect steel and masonry, and enhancements to batteries for better performance and longer life. It is funded by more than £61 million ($90.6 million) from the U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the European Regional Development Fund, combined. In 2017, the university plans to open a £60 million ($89.1 million) Graphene Engineering Research Center to spur further commercial development.

Researchers worldwide are now working on finding the right applications for graphene. But it may be a while—if ever—before the material is available in quantities large enough for construction.

Earlier this month, researchers at the California Institute of Technology published in the journal Nature Communications a process through which graphene can grow without active heating, resulting in the ability to produce graphene faster at a larger volume and higher quality than was previously possible. And this past fall, Northwestern University materials researcher Mark Hersam, who recently discussed his lab’s graphene-based ink for flexible media with ARCHITECT, was named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow for his work in developing nanomaterials for uses in solar cells, biotechnology, flexible electronics, and other products.

"If you're bringing something to market, you have to displace what's there on both quality and usually cost as well," Bailey says. "[W]e're working on a number of different methods of producing graphene ... [T]he issue of course is the applications of graphene. Otherwise, graphene is just a great material, but what good is it?"