Graphene: why you can legally make it from girl scout cookies

Graphene is a form of carbon that promises to be extremely useful in nanowares, being highly conductive, extremely flexible, and very strong. It is an atom-thick sheet of carbon, essentially the buckminsterfullerene molecule made two-dimensional.

Graphene sheet

As I wrote about in my book, the discoverers of “Buckyballs” did not patent the product, the molecule itself, although many of my friends in the patent community would urge them to do so. Like molecular oxygen, or strings of nucleotides found in nature, modern patent lawyers argue that anything under the sun, even natural products when synthesized, although morphologically identical, are somehow magically patentable. What a bonanza for the lawyers it has been to interpret patent this way, as the courts have now for nearly a century. But what a hindrance to science and innovation if scientific discoveries like buckyballs, carbon nanotubes and graphene were all patented.

Because Kroto, Smalley, and Curl chose not to patent buckyballs, and Andre Geim, who discovered graphene never patented it either, the landscape for innovation in these materials is wide open (they all, incidentally, settled for mere Nobel prizes). The dream of readily-available nanoware production is partly demonstrated by a graphic demonstration recently in which graphene was made from girl scout cookies

Making graphene from Girl Scout Cookies (really!)

Because there is no monopoly on the product, innovators are free to experiment with variety of ways to make the product, hopefully with ever-increasing efficiency, all without the necessity to pay costly license fees to a patent holder. Unfortunately the closely-related field of carbon nanotubes is now a prime example of a patent thicket, with 257 competing patents all vying for some part of the material. Don’t expect the girl scouts to start experimenting or innovating in that material until those patents lapse.Carbon nanotubes: clogged by patents


About nanowares

Author, philosopher, attorney, and educator interested in science, technology, ethics, and freedom
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