A FAMILY-OWNED chemical company, which began life converting industrial waste into road surfacing, is showcasing its recent breakthroughs with 21st century miracle material graphene.

Thomas Swan and Co, of Consett, is introducing two graphene products to the market at the Printed Electronics Europe exhibition, which takes place next week in Berlin.

The County Durham firm, established at the former steel town in 1926, has been researching ways of producing  graphene; a flexible substance which is incredibly strong, lightweight and a superb conductor of heat and electricity.

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The potential applications for graphene are vast, from electronics and telecoms to energy storage, prompting comparisons with the way plastics and silicon transformed our lives in the last century. The benefits to the consumer could be seen in faster and cheaper devices such as mobile phones which are thin, flexible and almost unbreakable.

Despite about 9,000 graphene-related patents being filed no developer has yet been able to place graphene into a device which would lead to a commercially available product, explained Andy Goodwin, commercial director of Thomas Swans advanced materials division. 

Graphene was first isolated by scientists at Manchester University, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their work, and the Government is determined to ensure the UK stays at the leading edge of research.

Last weeks Budget handed the North-East a key role in the race to exploit graphenes commercial potential when the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), in Sedgefield was named by George Osborne as home to a new £14m development hub for the carbon-based substance.

Thomas Swan plans to use the centre in the future to support its own research into producing high quality, reliable supplies of graphene on an industrial scale.

In addition, the firm has plans to develop its own purpose-built plant, which could add significantly to its workforce of 168.

In the meantime, Swans work with a team from Trinity College in Dublin will be unveiled to industry leaders in Germany.  

"The investment at CPI in Sedgefield was excellent news for the North-East," added Mr Goodwin. 

"Graphene is a really exciting material, but no one knows yet just how exciting it will be.

"Our expertise as in areas such as carbon nanotubes demonstrates our capabilities in delivering world leading technology. Potential partners will be looking for manufacturers to deliver stable, reliable supplies of
good quality graphene raw material.

"We are confident that we can do that. The Berlin show will give us the opportunity to make development quantities available," concluded Mr Goodwin.