Interview

Here comes the graphene revolution

The EU has committed €1 billion to this revolutionary new material. What are the challenges, what are the promises?

Made of a single layer of carbon atoms, graphene has properties that make researchers drool. It is hundreds of times stronger than steel and a much better conductor than any of the materials now being used in electronics.

Two Russian scientists working at the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, won the Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking experiments on graphene made only 10 years ago. Since then, institutions around the world have been racing to find concrete applications. Samsung, for example, has already developed prototypes of graphene screens. But with the EU’s €1 billion over 10 years, granted as part of the Flagships Initiative, Europe is well positioned to move into the lead.

Technologist spoke to project leader Jari Kinaret about the mammoth project.

Technologist: We’ve heard a lot about possible applications for this “wonder material”, but there’s also a great deal of hype. Which applications are closest to market?

Jari Kinaret: Nanocomposites – you can already buy a tennis racquet made of graphene composites. Display technologies have also matured quite a bit: graphene-based touch screens are being field tested. In such areas as electronics applications, where you need higher quality graphene, you still hear quite a bit of hype.

T. Could graphene replace silicon in electronic circuits?

J. K. That’s an example of hype. The digital electronic circuits in your computer are the hardest thing for graphene to replace. Basically, the material conducts electricity too well – it’s hard to create a stream of digital “on” and “off” signals. And silicon is extremely good at what it does. As generous as our project’s budget is, it’s insufficient to build even one facility of the sort that, say, Intel runs to make silicon circuits for microchips.

T. Does it make sense to commit so much funding to this one area when breakthroughs could come from anywhere?

J. K. When it comes to fundamental, curiosity-driven research, large programmes are probably not the best way. But what we’re doing wouldn’t be possible without a large programme. Our aim is to bridge the gap between academic laboratories and the market. That takes a lot of time, effort and money.

The risks are so high that most companies would shy away from doing this on their own, so we need to work together. We have 75 separate partners – universities, research institutes and companies from 17 different countries – and we’re expanding the team to strengthen the programme’s efforts in engineering.

The most important thing about the Flagships Initiative is that it’s long term. Over 10 years you can tackle large questions that you couldn’t expect to solve in a typical three-year EU programme.

T. How do you get academics and industry to work together?

J. K. We have more than 50 specific targets, and no single partner can meet any one of them alone. For instance, after 18 months we must design a graphene-based receiver unit for W band operation [a specific radio-frequency band], based on parameters from fabricated devices. This requires different expertises, so people have to cooperate to achieve the ambitious goals.

One difficulty is openness. Academic researchers want to publish their findings as soon as possible, while corporate partners want to make sure no valuable secrets are revealed. We’ve had quite a bit of discussion on how to balance these different views. Another challenge was rules about commercialising intellectual property. When you have 75 partners, each of whom has at least one lawyer, it’s not easy to reach agreement.

T. What has surprised you most about running the programme?

J. K. The administrative uncertainty. The European Commission has not figured out exactly what it wants to do, what it can do, and how to do it. We’ve been surprised several times by changes in the overall structure. Having to respond to new and unexpected requests from the Commission has taxed the time research leaders have available to discuss research. After 2016 we’re planning to devote more of their time to high-level science and technology, and less to bureaucracy.