Tour testifies on Capitol Hill about graphene ‘space race’

Warns US is slipping in research, experiencing ‘brain drain’

Appearing before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection at the hearing “Disrupter Series: Advanced Materials and Production” March 15, Rice University chemist James Tour took the opportunity to testify about the importance of graphene. Graphene is stronger than steel but is still in the developmental and lab-to-marketplace phase.

Photo courtesy: U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce

Graphene’s applications are potentially very broad. Tour’s group is using graphene to create better electrical energy storage devices, more efficient oil and gas extraction methods and water purification systems. His group is also working on nanomedicine treatment of traumatic brain injury, stroke and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

“The transition from the laboratory to a sellable product is a huge hurdle,” he said. “But, with persistence and investment, it can be done.”

Tour, who is the T.T. and W.F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering and is the third-most prolific graphene inventor (patents, pending patents) in the world, said that there is a current graphene “space race.”

The worldwide market for graphene remains small today, Tour said. “However, its potential is enormous and it will soon capture far greater markets.”

Tour testified that the monetary value lies in the intellectual property, namely patents. “That means that the country that dominates in graphene will dominate in high technology advances for decades to come.”

Currently China leads all nations with 8,000 patents, followed by the U.S. with 6,000, Korea with 4,000, Japan with 2,000 and Taiwan and European countries with 1,000 each.

While it appears the U.S. lags behind China only slightly in patents, Tour said there should be some major concern. Of the top 20 entities that hold graphene patents in the world, eight are foreign-owned companies, while only three are U.S.-based. Furthermore, of the remaining nine, eight are foreign universities, while only one is a U.S. university – Rice University.

“Things don’t look so good for U.S. industry or U.S. universities on a per-institution basis,” Tour testified. “Samsung alone owns almost as many graphene patents (637) as IBM, Baker Hughes and Lockheed-Martin combined (736).”

Tour said to vault the U.S. to preeminence in graphene research, the country needs to address a few grim realities. He said that U.S. universities have less high-tech equipment for nano-analysis than Asian universities. “At Rice I often collaborate with researchers in Asia, not for their talent but to secure access to their equipment. In the past eight years, the lack of funds for research equipment has severely hampered U.S. access to new and updated facilities.”

Tour also said the dramatic loss of research funding to U.S. universities on a per-investigator basis is leading to “our best and brightest international students returning to their home countries upon graduation, taking our advanced technology expertise with them, but our top professors are also moving abroad in order to keep their programs funded.”

“For the past century or more, the United States had been the recipient of the world’s most talented students, profiting from the brain drain of other nations,” Tour said. “Not so anymore. We are losing our best and brightest.”

To combat the decline, Tour suggested three things that could jumpstart U.S.’s competitiveness: First, a rapid initiation of a $200 million per year program administered over four years through the standard federal science funding agencies in $5 million to $10 million per year multi-investigator programs wherein there is strong in-kind university and corporate partner matching in dedicated facilities, equipment and personnel. Tour also suggested reducing the corporate tax rate to 15 percent to keep startup companies in the U.S. Tour pointed out that his last three companies were started abroad. Lastly, Tour said the government needs to streamline the green card process for scientists and engineers who receive their Ph.D. in the United States. “We need them,” he said.

A video of Tour’s testimony is available here.

About David Ruth

David Ruth is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.