Graphene faces hurdles. It is still far too expensive for mass markets, it doesn't lend itself to use in some computer-chip circuitry and scientists are still trying to find better ways to turn it into usable form. "Graphene is a complicated technology to deliver," says Quentin Tannock, chairman of Cambridge Intellectual Property, a U.K. research firm. "The race to find value is more of a marathon than a sprint."
Interest in graphene has exploded since 2010, when two researchers won a Nobel Prize for isolating it. Corporate and academic scientists are now rushing to patent a broad range of potential uses.
"As soon as I find something, boom! I file a patent for it," says James Tour, a graphene expert at Rice University in Houston.
Apple has filed to patent graphene "heat dissipators" for mobile devices. Saab has filed to patent graphene heating circuits for deicing airplane wings. Lockheed Martin this year was granted a U.S. patent on a graphene membrane that filters salt from seawater using microscopic pores.
Others have applied for patents on graphene used in computer chips, batteries, flexible touch screens, anti-rust coatings, DNA-sequencing devices and tires. A group of scientists in Britain has used a graphene membrane to distill vodka.
There were 9,218 published graphene patents and patent applications filed cumulatively as of May around the world, up 19% from a year earlier, says Cambridge Intellectual. Over the past five years, it says, the cumulative number of graphene patent filings has more than quintupled.
"It's a land grab," says Mr. Tannock of Cambridge Intellectual. By trying to patent just about every finding, "you have the option for suing your competitors later and stopping them." Many graphene patent filings appear legitimate, but some seem speculative and others may be decoys to mislead rivals, he says.