In the spring of 2010, physicist Jari Kinaret received an email from the European Commission. The EU executive sought pitches from scientists for ambitious new mega-projects. The initiatives, known as flagships, would focus on innovations that could transform Europe’s scientific and industrial landscape.
Kinaret, a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, reviewed the initial proposals.
“I wasn’t very impressed,” the 60-year-old told TNW. “I thought they could come up with better ideas.”
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Kinaret happened to come up with an idea of his own: growing graphene. He decided to submit the subject for consideration.
This proposal laid the foundation for the Graph flagship: the largest European research program to date. Launched in 2013 with a budget of €1 billion, the project aimed to bring the “miracle material” into the mainstream within 10 years.
On the eve of that deadline, TNW spoke to Kinaret about the project’s progress over the past decade — and its hopes for the next.
Graphene arrives in Europe
Scientists have been tracking the single sheet of carbon atoms that make up graphene since 1859, but its existence was not confirmed until 2004. The big breakthrough came with an amazingly simple product: adhesive tape.
Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two physicists at the University of Manchester, regularly hosted “Friday Night Experiments” where they explored offbeat ideas. At one such session, duct tape was used to extract tiny flakes from a lump of graphite. After repeatedly separating the thinnest fragments, they created flakes just one atom thick.
The researchers had isolated graphene – the first two-dimensional material ever discovered.
The researchers donated graphite, adhesive tape and a graphene transistor to the Nobel Museum. Photo credit: Gabriel Hildebrand
The scientific world was filled with excitement. Graphene was the thinnest known material in the universe, the strongest ever measured, more pliable than rubber and more conductive than copper.
In 2010, Geim and Novoselov received the Nobel Prize for their discovery. The awards committee envisioned endless applications: touch screens, light panels, solar cells, satellites, meteorology and, um, practically invisible hammocks for cats.
The hypothetical hammock would weigh only 0.77 mg and support a 4 kg cat. Source: Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Kinaret saw the potential. Three years later, he led an EU campaign to bring graphene from the lab to the market.
Hype versus reality
Commercializing graphene has never been easy. Studies suggest so that innovations usually take five to seven decades to develop from inventions into products with significant market shares. Evolution would be slow—but observers were already impatient.
As the director of the flagship, Kinaret had to contend with such sober expectations. He would refer to it frequently in conversations the Gartner Hype Cyclea representation of how new technologies are developing.
The timeline begins with a breakthrough that sparks a media commotion. In the case of graphene, reporters soon claimed the material would replace silicon.
“Graphene cannot replace silicon,” says Kinaret. “Graphene is a metalloid; it is not a semiconductor.”
When reality fails to live up to such inflated expectations, interest dwindles and investment dwindles. Gartner describes this phase as “Valley of Disillusionment”. Graphene appears to be past this perilous time, thanks in part to long-term commitment from the EU.
The remaining supporters tend to be more practical and persistent. Now their goal is mainstream acceptance.
“We promised that – and we kept it.
Many trading partners were initially thrifty with their investments. A very large European company had a budget of just €20,000 for 30 months – “just enough to buy coffee for the people working on it, but not really enough to do anything substantial,” recalls Kinaret.
To increase their engagement, the flagship needed their trust, which presented a challenge as competing brands had to work together. Nokia, for example, would have to work with Ericsson.
“One dimension of trust that people needed was trusting that this was real,” says Kinaret. “The other is that the participants had to trust each other.”
The flagship’s current membership suggests that trust is now secured. The share of companies has grown from 15% to around 50% today. The other half are either research institutes or universities.
Kinaret describes the growth of industrial commitment as the flagship’s key development.
“We promised that and we delivered it,” he says.
From laboratory to factory
Around 100 products have emerged from the Graphene Flagship. The vast majority are business-to-business technologies, such as Thermal coating for racing cars and environmentally friendly packaging for electronic devices. Consumer products have been commercialized more slowly.
Kinaret presents some of his favorites. one is Qurva Spanish spin-off that makes graph-based sensors that allow cars to detect pedestrians in fog and rain.
“There are detectors today that do the same thing, but they can cost around $500 each,” says Kinaret. “The graphene detectors could cost around $1 each. That would be a total game changer in this business.”
Qurv’s broadband image sensors could improve computer vision. Credit: The Graphene Flagship
Another highlight for Kinaret is neuroelectronics in the brain. The startup is developing graph-based implants that can monitor brain signals and treat neurological disorders.
The devices could eventually stimulate the brain to control the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease. Conventional electrodes can achieve this, but they are much stiffer than highly flexible graphene.
“The brain is like a lump of jelly — it’s constantly moving,” says Kinaret. “If you put a stiff electrode there, it causes scarring.
Kinaret is also excited about the prospects for basic research. In 2018, Graphene flagship partners revealed that over 2,000 materials can exist in 2D form. Not all of them are stable, but some of them are the focus of active research.
“You can make superconducting materials.
Some researchers are investigating what can be achieved by stacking the substances in multiple layers.
“You can grow them so that there’s a very specific twist angle between the different layers, which means they’re slightly misaligned. This misalignment angle is a very important new parameter,” says Kinaret.
“By tuning this misalignment angle, you can make materials that are superconducting and have very interesting optical properties. This has only been researched in basic research for about four years and is still quite a long way from applications. But it offers interesting possibilities for the future.”
Kinaret is proud of the achievements of the flagship. He believes the initiative has significantly exceeded its goals.
The data seems to support his claims. The European Commission wants to convert every 10 million euros invested into a patent application. The flagship, Kinaret says, has more than 10 times that requirement. Scientific publication targets were exceeded by a similar factor.
Kinaret’s research is aimed at potential applications. Credit: Graphene Flagship
There are still challenges to overcome. In electronics, for example, high-quality graphene must be transferred from the substrate on which it is grown to the system on which it will be used. The flagship is good at doing this manually, but automating the process on an industrial scale has proven more difficult.
Nonetheless, Kinaret reminds the team to stay positive.
“Engineers are typically short-term optimists and long-term pessimists,” he says. “They expect progress to be much faster initially than it turns out to be, but end up underestimating the impact of new technologies.”
Looking ahead, Kinaret expects Europe to become a graphene powerhouse. The flagship has given the continent an edge over the US in the race to mainstream.
However, he admits that laypeople still wonder what graphene is and can do.
“If we get into a situation where a surprised ‘What?’ was replaced by “so what?” because it’s become ubiquitous or mainstream…then we’ve made it.”