‘Wonder material’ graphene set to push the limits of sporting achievement

Tom Baker

Wonder material graphene set to push the limits of sporting achievement

From quantum computing to medical devices, the diverse applications of graphene are impacting almost every industry, including the world of sport — where the ‘wonder material’ is set to push the limits of human achievement by revolutionising sports equipment. Here, we explore some of the latest examples and explain how innovators are successfully navigating the crowded patent landscape to commercialise their products.

Patent protection — how to navigate known technology

With so much innovation relating to graphene coming through small improvements that provide seemingly minor performance benefits, it’s important to understand how patent protection can be achieved when the underlying technology is already known.

It all starts with Claim 1 of a patent, which usually contains the broadest ring-fencing of an invention. So long as an innovator can demonstrate that a certain combination of features (which isn’t already known) provides some technical benefit — which could include a softer ‘feel’ when a ball is struck, increased wear resistance, reduced rolling resistance, etc. — then patent rights could be obtained. In this way, patent rights can be sought for applications of known technology. This means that innovators must be specific — for example, while you are unlikely to get a granted patent for simply adding a dose of graphene to a tennis racquet, you may secure protection by introducing a specific size, number or location of graphene particles in the racquet.

In a basic sense, for a third party to infringe a patent, its product must include all the features defined in Claim 1. While a patent with such a limited scope may not always provide a useful commercial advantage, a decision-making process should be built into the product development timeline.

When it comes to graphene, incorporating the wonder material into sports equipment can deliver great benefits to performance, as even minor improvements can make a huge difference when it comes to beating records — because of the nature of sport, this is an area of technology that innovative companies are beginning to exploit with patent protection.

Innovations with specific uses for graphene

Here are some examples of recent innovations that provide specific uses for graphene to achieve strong technical benefits.

Tyre technology

One European patent (EP3331781B) defines an elastomeric (tyre) composition made up of the usual rubber blend, silica and carbon black, with the addition of graphene. This composition was already known, meaning that novelty in the invention resides in the specific detail of the nanoparticles that are included. The defined properties relate to the lateral size and thickness of the nanoparticles — where lateral size is always greater than thickness — and a carbon/oxygen ratio of greater than 100:1. The actual limitations on the scope of protection obtained are shown in the definition of the invention below. The composition is claimed to provide improved tyre properties, particularly in the optimisation of rolling resistance and grip.

Claim 1 states:

  1. Elastomeric composition comprising, based upon parts by weight per 100 parts by weight of rubber (phr):
    100 phr of a blend of rubbers comprising at least 20 wt% of an isoprene polymer;
  2. from 0 to 30 phr of silica;
  3. from 0 to 50 phr of amorphous carbon black;
  4. from 1 to 40 phr of graphene, characterized in that said graphene comprises nanoplatelets of graphene, wherein at least 90% of said nanoplatelets have a lateral size (x, y) measured by scanning electron microscope (SEM) from 50 to 50000 nm and a thickness (z) measured by atomic force microscope (AFM) from 0.34 to 50 nm, wherein the lateral size is always greater than the thickness (x, y > z), and wherein the C/O ratio is ≥ 100:1 measured by elemental analysis.

In a similar way, Ere Research has formulated a 3D structure made of bonded carbon nanofilaments which are arranged in a specific way to form a sponge-like structure that is believed to reduce rolling resistance, increase grip and improve puncture resistance. This material replaces the carbon black or silica in the tyre.

A further interesting patent filed by Directa Plus that relates to tyre compounds was recently granted in the US and Europe. The compounds incorporate graphene nanoplatelets, which sit between rubber molecules to improve the tyre’s structure, making it both lighter and stronger. The resulting ‘G+’ bicycle tyres are being brought to market by Vittoria for both on- and off-road use — yet the level of patent protection provided means that Directa Plus is looking into further applications in the automotive and motorcycle industries.

Golf balls

One patent (EP3558477B) for golf balls contains technology that’s designed to reduce the ‘hardness’ of the ball when struck, while ensuring a long drive. Its Claim 1 doesn’t relate to the incorporation of nanoplatelets into the golf ball structure, but instead specifies exactly where those nanoplatelets are located, combined with their size and carbon/oxygen (C/O ratio).

Claim 1 states:

Golf ball consisting of:

  1. an inner part comprising at least an elastomeric polymer and at least a reinforcing agent;
  2. an outer part comprising at least a coating layer provided with dimples; and
  3. graphene nano-platelets characterized in that said graphene nano-platelets are dispersed within said reinforcing agent in said inner part of said golf ball, said graphene nano-platelets having the following features:
  4. at least 90% of said graphene nano-platelets has a lateral size (x, y) from 50 to 50000 nm and a thickness (z) from 0.34 to 45 nm, wherein the lateral size is always greater than the thickness (x, y > z);
  5. the C/O ratio in said graphene nano-platelets is ≥ 100:1.

Trainer soles

Innovators (as in EP3820322B) are also incorporating graphene nano-platelets into the crowded trainer market to increase sole grip on wet ground while maintaining resistance to wearing.

Claim 1 states:

A shoe sole comprising an elastomeric composition characterized in that it comprises:

a. 100 phr of a mixture of rubbers comprising:

  1. from 40 to 70% by weight of an isoprene polymer;
  2. from 20 to 50% by weight of polybutadiene;
  3. from 10 to 40% by weight of an SBR having a glass transition temperature (Tg) from -60 to -40 °C; and, based on 100 parts by weight (phr) of elastomeric component (A):

b. from 50 to 100 phr of amorphous carbon black having a surface area greater than 85 m<2>/ g measured with the ASTM D6556 method, and a dibutyl phthalate absorption index (DBPA) greater than 90 measured with the ASTM D2414 method;

c. from 1 to 30 phr of graphene nano-platelets, wherein at least 90% of said graphene nano-platelets has a side dimension (x, y) from 50 to 50000 nm and a thickness (z) of 0.34 to 50 nm, and wherein said graphene nano-platelets have a C / O ratio ≥ 100: 1.

Advice for graphene innovators

Ultimately, with so many patents already granted in the field of graphene production, the above examples show the massive scope for innovators to secure further protection for new applications of the material when applied in a particular way to deliver improved performance.

In the sporting world, it’s clear that graphene has the potential to push human achievement to new heights and there is a wealth of untapped innovation still waiting to be capitalised on.

If you’re innovating in new materials like graphene, get in touch for a free initial chat about how to protect and commercialise your technology.

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