CAMBRIDGE, England—A substance 200 times stronger than steel yet as thin as an atom has ignited a global scientific gold rush, sending companies and universities racing to understand, patent and profit from the skinnier, more glamorous cousin of ordinary pencil lead.
The material is graphene, and to demonstrate its potential, Andrea Ferrari recently picked up a sheet of clear plastic, flexed it and then tapped invisible keys, triggering tinkly musical notes.
The keyboard made at Dr. Ferrari's University of Cambridge lab was printed with a circuit of graphene, which is so pliable that scientists predict it will fulfill dreams of flexible phones and electronic newspapers that can fold into a pocket.
Dr. Andrea Ferrari, head of graphene research at the University of Cambridge, inspects equipment used for experiments on the atom-thick material.
It is the thinnest material known. But it is exceedingly strong, light and flexible. It is exceptional at conducting electricity and heat, and at absorbing and emitting light.
Scientists isolated graphene just a decade ago, but some companies are already building it into products: Head NV HEDYY 0.00% introduced a graphene-infused tennis racket this year. Apple Inc., AAPL +0.93% Saab AB SAAB-B.SK +0.17% and Lockheed Martin Corp. LMT +0.02% have recently sought or received patents to use graphene.
"Graphene is the same sort of material, like steel or plastic or silicon that can really change society," says Dr. Ferrari, who leads a band of about 40 graphene researchers at Cambridge.