By Paul Quigley
Nestling unassumingly on an anonymous side-street off the main thoroughfare in the heart of Manchester’s academic district is where it happened.
This is home to the University of Manchester’s physics faculty. Way back in the mists of Internet-time, some ten years ago, two curious research physicists were playing around with pencils and Scotch tape late one Friday evening, much as driven academic researchers do when slaving away over a hot desk in a post-quantum material world of quarks, strangeness and charm. However, that evening in Academiopolis Mancuniae was different. It wasn’t raining in Manchester. Almost by accident, two research staff physicists, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, had that Friday evening done something quite extraordinary.
In something akin to an Isaac Newton apple-on-the-head’ moment mixed with a Blue Peter’s Valerie Singleton ‘sticky-back-plastic’ kids’ DIY-modelling prop, the two Russians had managed to prove unequivocally that the Large Hadron Collider was no longer the only game in town in bleeding edge post-quantum physics.
FROM LEVITATING FROGS TO FLAKY FRIDAY EVENINGS
After having successfully managed to levitate a frog using magnets several years earlier, the two Russian physicists were playing around with chunks of graphite and rolls of Scotch tape, consecutively peeling off layers of graphite into tiny flaky layers. Kostya Novoselov, Professor of Condensed Matter Physics at Manchester University picks up the story. ”We started to work with carbon graphite flakes. It was a ‘Friday Evening Experiment’’. We didn’t know that graphene existed. If you’d asked me then, I’d have said it was impossible to get a mono-layer of anything. We were trying to make them thinner and thinner” he explains. “Mono-layer and bi-layer graphene was quite an achievement – but it was a process. We knew we had something very special in our hands from the very beginning.”
Indeed they did. Two hundred times stronger than steel, harder than diamond, more conductive than gold or copper, virtually translucent (97.7%), inert. more flexible than rubber – and yet – only one atom in thickness, “grapheme” as it came to be known, was born into the multiverse – a unique 2D material the like of which had never before been formulated; a unique material not only bio-neutral, but also sterile, anti-microbial, it is also now being studied as a miracle ‘wonderstuff’ for all manner of medtech applications as diverse as prosthetic retinas, cardio-surgical and brain implants, for bio-sensors of all kinds, as well as myriad uses in toxicology, drug delivery, tissue engineering, and is even being earmarked for breakthroughs in cancer therapy. Already in 2016, the University of Manchester has discovered further medtech applications for graphene, in the form of state-of-the-art cutting edge ‘terahertz lasers; that may yet come to replace existing x-ray technology with far less radiation dosages to patients. Graphene looks set become a revolutionary catalyst pivotal to becoming a constructively disruptive technology on so many levels.
Researchers and engineers at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester are already hard at work on the commercialisation processes for the myriad possibilities for graphene.
When it comes to medical technology and devices using graphene, the possibilities are almost endless and innovation ins already well-underway for many new products and services. Just down the road at Manchester’s shiny new National Graphene Institute, Dr. Cyrill Bussy, lecturer in Nanosafety at the University of Manchester’s Nanomedicine Lab in the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences (FMHS) part of the National Graphene Institute is hard at work turning Geim and Novoselov’s superlative discovery into real-world, tangible solutions.
The potential for what is expected to become a multi-billion market over the next decade is driving investment and research labs around the world into a frenzy of experimentation and clinical trials as graphene becomes part of the fabric of post-industrial materials science forming the basis for the medtech innovation of tomorrow.
EXTRA SENSORY PERCEPTION
Nigel Syrotuck, product design engineer for Starfish Medical in Canada believes that the most likely ‘next step’ for graphene is in sensors. “Specifically,” he says, “wellness devices such as personal health monitors, where highly-specialised diagnostic machines that can harness graphene’s unique attributes will create more accurate, more specific and smaller tools.” According to Syrotuck, graphene will be accompanied by more innovation. “The other interesting phenomenon is the appearance of numerous competing materials such as boron and diamond-structured carbon that have similar properties, structures and applications” he says. “It looks like graphene is not just a ‘wunder-kid’, but also a trend-setter.”
Dr. Cyrill Bussy concurs with Syrotuck’s insights into the 2D catalyst theme that graphene has engendered. “Graphene-based materials are amongst the latest nanomaterials explored for their potential in the biomedical field. While many groups around the world are comparing graphene-based materials to other nanomaterials for drug delivery applications and trying to figure out whether graphene-based materials are performing better and how unique graphene can be, it is probably in the area of biosensors and wearable devices that graphene will find its place, at least in the short term.” According to Bussy, the unique combination of properties of graphene, such as conductivity together with flexibility make it a perfect solution for unmet medical needs in devices based on wearable, flexible electronics for the transmission of real-time information to support self-management of health and wellbeing, and to facilitate timely interventions, such as injection of insulin. “Scientists at the University of Manchester have even started to think about healthcare monitors that would be directly printed in skin” Bussy reveals.
One of the big hopes for graphene, as mentioned earlier, is in the area of help for serious eye conditions and eye disease. Dr. Bussy explains that this is also widely-appreciated amongst the graphene research community and moves are already afoot to address some of the key underlying issues. “In the case of a defined application such as prosthetic retinal substitute,” he says. Bussy believes that the issue of biocompatibility of graphene is the key issue, rather than pure toxicology. “It means that instead of looking at reaction of cells in relation to a route of human exposure, scientists will adopt a slightly different approach” he explains. “The one used for any new biomaterial, that is to say, implants and theses, paying attention to the specific cells and tissue in relation to this particular application.. So in the case of graphene as a component of a prosthetic retinal substitute, scientists will need to ensure that cell growing around the graphene-based implant/electrode array are not affected in any way, meaning that their functions are unchanged by the presence of the implant.”
While the potential for retinal implants is great, the practical challenges facing such a life-changing reality are even greater, as
Professor Jose Antonio Garrido, researcher in advanced electronic materials and devices at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience & Nanotechnology in Barcelona is also working on the optical capabilities of graphene. “It is true that graphene, is being explored in retinal implants. We believe that graphene, because of its unique properties of being flexible, mechanically-stable, and with excellent electronic performance, can play an important role in brain implants – including retinal implants.” According to Dr. Bussy, graphene has other special benefits that medtech can harness. In the area of electrode array, bringing the unique properties of graphene’s transparency, flexibility, conductivity and resistance to bear are a key focus. “The only requirement in term of biocompatibility testing is to make sure that using graphene instead of the current material of retinal implant is not changing the biocompatibility of the implant” says Bussy. “Based on what we know so far in terms of interaction of cells with graphene-based substrate, the surface on which they can grow, it would be very surprising that graphene is not biocompatible for this application.”
BILLION DOLLAR DECADE: GRAPHENE FLAGSHIP SETS SAIL
The burgeoning interest in the prospects for real-world products and applications for this the carbon-based ‘wonderstuff’ has even got bureaucrats in Brussels jostling for position in exploiting graphene’s economic and industrial potential, investing a cool 1 billion euros in funding over the next decade for one of its flagship’ programme that bears its name. The EU’s Graphene Flagship is a 10 year endeavour with over 150 partners from many nations around the continent.
Professor Garrido’s activities are part of the EU Graphene Flagship programme. He is currently working on developing technologies based on graphene to fabricate flexible implants for both for the central nervous system and for peripheral nervous system in humans. Says Garrido: “We are currently designing and fabricating flexible arrays of graphene transistors on biocompatible polymer substrates that are able to detect the electrical activity on the surface of the brain. The technology that we are developing, in contrast to the currently used technology based on metallic electrodes, allows a much higher integration density, that is to say, sensors per unit of area – and better spatial resolution with smaller sensors.” Professor Garrido expects such graphene-assisted technology will be used for applications related to epilepsy, control of artificial limbs – and retina
FROM MODELLING TO MARKETING
Already, ‘real-world’ graphene products have hit the market in related industries, Commercial products that use graphene or graphene-related materials are in use in paint and coatings. Professor Garrido says that products requiring more advanced technology developments, such as flexible touch screens, sensors, etc., are not far away from commercialization. “Other products, with a much higher level of technology developments might need some more time.” He concedes.
Nevertheless, there are already prototypes of devices that have been tested and shown to outperform current technologies. “At this moment, it’s a matter of improving on reliability, stability, and production yield” explains Garrido.
But before such wondrous medtech miracles can move from virtual reality models to reality-based solutions, Professor Garrido highlights some of the main hurdles that scientists and engineers need to overcome in order for the commercialisation of graphene-based medical technology. According to Garrido, the meticulous scrutiny of clinical trials and of type approval form the basis of this phase. “The future devices will be rather complex structures fabricated using different materials – polymers and metals – in which graphene might play some particular role” says Garrido. “This will take advantage of its flexibility, optical transparency, and excellent electronic properties.”
Other areas where Professor Garrido sees graphene research making major strides for medtech outcomes include its great potential in biosensors, both low-cost, disposable biosensors and for high-end, highly-sensitive, specific biosensors. Furthermore, Garrido says that drug delivery antherapeutics based on graphene nanomaterials are also very appealing fields for research which he says is already growing very rapidly.
BIG THINGS TO COME
More than just a panacea to myriad medical and clinical challenges, grapheme also holds massive potential in all manner of scientific and materials science as well as the life sciences that researchers and product developers are now hard-pressed to keep apace with, such is the sheer scale of graphene’s constantly-evolving properties and practical application potential.
As graphene unleashes waves of innovation across the wider medtech space, it looks set to join most of the other great scientific discoveries of the last century, those things like atoms, DNA, RF, neutrons, x-rays, dark matter – things that cannot be seen by the naked eye. So perhaps unsurprisingly, as the next millennium spans out into the distance, this voyage of discovery is not yet over for Kostya Novoselov either, who is already back in his scientific sandbox hard at ‘work’ playing once again at prising open the doors of perception that graphene has blazed a trail for. He’s looking at applied super-conductors and searching for more ferromagnetic mischief that graphene has helped shine a light into. Chances are he’ll find something. And as this Friday evening’s traffic ebbs homeward and the city streets around the National Graphene Institute fall silent, drops of rain begin to spatter the grey pavements like random flat shiny wet lattices. After all, this is Manchester, where pigs may yet fly as levitating frogs have done so here already. And if the recent past is anything to go by, at this rate, It’ll soon be raining cats and dogs too.
First published February 2016 on http://www.MedtechEngine.com