The leader utilizing the ‘supermaterial’ graphene in the worldwide competition for microchips believes it will revolutionize the world.
When visitors arrive at Paragraf’s laboratory in the village of Somersham in Cambridgeshire, they are initially presented with a thin disc composed of synthetic sapphire and a strip of graphene attached to it. This was the company’s initial graphene creation, but it has since progressed to a small wafer containing 64 miniature graphene components arranged in a grid. Presently, the company manufactures six-inch wafers housing 9,000 chips.
Graphene, a flat carbon material with a hexagonal atomic arrangement, is primarily utilized for reinforcing concrete and paints. However, it is now being promoted as a substitute for silicon in semiconductors. China has begun implementing it in order to gain an advantage in the worldwide competition for microchips.
Simon Thomas emphasizes the importance for the UK to take necessary measures in order to not fall behind China and the US in the competition to advance technology. In 2017, he, along with Prof Sir Colin Humphreys and technical director Ivor Guiney, founded Paragraf, a university spinout, after working together at Cambridge University.
Graphene, hailed as a “super material”, is extracted from graphite, the crystalline form of carbon used to make pencils, and comes as a latticed sheet just one atom thick. Thomas believes it will “fundamentally change the world”, altering the way everything from mobile phones and computers to electric cars, healthcare and military equipment is manufactured.
According to the University of Manchester, the material is capable of creating smartphones that can be worn on the wrist, and tablets that can be rolled up like a newspaper. The university was responsible for first producing graphene in 2004.
Thomas, dressed in a blue suit with coordinating footwear and a floral shirt, declares: “The use of graphene and other 2D materials will revolutionize the current state of technology, introducing advancements and capabilities unlike anything we have ever seen before. In the realm of electronics, it will greatly impact energy efficiency and lead to the development of faster semiconductors.”
Possible applications include utilizing quantum computers, implementing magnetic sensors in next-generation MRI machines, and incorporating consumer technology like delivery drones.
Graphene is a material that is exceptionally strong and thin, surpassing steel in toughness and paper in lightness. It is also harder than diamonds yet more flexible than rubber. Additionally, it has great conductivity for both heat and electricity.
Paragraf is among the first companies in the world to mass-produce graphene-based devices, including sensors for electric cars.
At its Somersham location, Paragraf has two reactors that resemble pizza ovens and have the capacity to generate sufficient graphene for 150,000 sensors per day. This material is utilized by the company in two manners: detecting magnetic fields and transforming microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, into electrical signals through the combination of graphene and a wet layer of chemical compounds in the form of a biosensor.
Paragraf has thrown its weight behind biosensors, which can detect the difference between viral and bacterial infections to determine whether a person needs antibiotics. It can also reveal the presence of conditions such as Covid-19, or spot infectious diseases in plants or animals.
In order to increase its capability in this field, Paragraf purchased a biosensor company, Cardea Bio, located in San Diego, in April. The products will be produced at a new facility located a short distance away in Huntingdon.
Thomas spent 11 years at Aixtron, a German engineering company, focusing on semiconductors and compound materials. During his time there, he also had stints in Asia. After returning to the UK in 2015, Humphreys approached him about collaborating on producing larger quantities of graphene.
The outcome could have been significantly altered. Thomas has held a fascination with science since he was young, but he also had a passion for drawing and painting. He pondered pursuing a degree in fine art, but a teacher discouraged him from doing so. As a result, he opted for aerospace engineering at Liverpool University.
Thomas calls his background “working class”: his father was a colour matcher in a factory, his mother a teaching assistant. “We didn’t have that much, but at the back of the dictionary they had was a periodic table,” recalls Thomas. He knew most of the table of chemical elements by heart by the age of six.
Thomas pursued a doctorate in material engineering at Liverpool.
Over ten years after, he became a member of Humphreys’ research group at Cambridge University. Eventually, they established Paragraf, which stands for Paradigm Graphene.
The company has raised approximately £70m in funding thus far and intends to go public on the stock market within the next four to five years. “I have a strong desire to expand a manufacturing company in this region, cultivate its success, and make it publicly listed in the UK,” Thomas states, but he does not dismiss the possibility of listing on Nasdaq.
The UK Treasury and In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm connected to the CIA, are investors in Paragraf and will aid in its growth in the US. One of Paragraf’s initial supporters was Hermann Hauser, known for co-founding Arm, a chip design company based in Cambridge. His firm, Amadeus Capital Partners, currently holds a 6.7% share in Paragraf.
In 2022, Paragraf reported a pre-tax loss of £11m, following a loss of £6.4m in the previous year. The rise in expenses for staffing and materials exceeded the significant increase in revenues, which nearly reached £230,000.
China has shown interest in acquiring the company due to its growth, but Thomas and the board rejected the proposals as they would have required relocating to China. Thomas stated that the offer was appealing, but accepting money from China would come with government interference.
The country of China has made efforts to dominate the graphene industry. According to Ron Mertens, the owner of Graphene-Info, approximately 5,000 companies in China are currently developing graphene-based products.
Huawei, a Chinese company, incorporates graphene into their Pocket S clamshell phone. There are reports that Apple is also experimenting with graphene films for their iPhone 16 in order to prevent overheating issues.
Some time ago, China announced plans to switch from using silicon to graphene in mass-producing microchips, with a goal of completing the transition by 2025. However, this statement was met with doubt in the western world.
Thomas is inspired by the aspirations of the Asian country: “They have already recognized the potential of this material and are fully committed to its future success.”
Unfortunately, numerous companies focused on graphene are facing challenges in generating profits and securing investments, leading to some of them closing down. For instance, a leading company in the field, Applied Graphene Materials located in Durham, sold its primary operations to a Canadian company and shut down the remaining business. In addition, Versarien in Gloucestershire has reduced its research team in order to decrease expenses.
In May, the UK government revealed plans to invest £1 billion in the country’s semiconductor industry over the next ten years. This amount is significantly smaller compared to the $52 billion being allocated by the US.
Thomas emphasizes the importance of having support in order to stay at the forefront. While monetary support is beneficial, it also requires the government’s commitment to aid our growth in the UK. This includes assistance with securing talented individuals, establishing necessary infrastructure, and facilitating international trade.
I obtained a MEng in aerospace engineering and a PhD in materials science and engineering from Liverpool University.
Last holiday Tenerife.
The most valuable guidance he has received is to “always advocate for what is just and what you believe in, even if you are standing alone.”
The greatest error in my professional journey was becoming complacent in a job and only realizing much later that I should have pursued new opportunities years earlier.
He frequently uses the term “Integratable” – a non-existent word, yet crucial in the process of introducing new materials to the semiconductor industry.
He unwinds by engaging in activities such as running and sleeping whenever he can.