Europe got the Nobel prize, but the USA and Asia are leading the battle to patent the super-material graphene.
This is a situation Professor Jari Kinaret wants to change. He has enlisted over a hundred European research groups, among them the Nobel prize winners Andre Geim, Konstantin Novoselov, Albert Fert and Klaus von Klitzing, in the fight to wrest back the initiative for Europe. The graphene project is at the forefront of the struggle. It is based on one of six pilot projects which were financed by the EU, and which are now competing to be appointed scientific flagships in Future and Emerging Technologies (FET).
On Tuesday 23 October, the consortium submitted its final proposal for the structuring of its scientific flagship. The initial budget spans 30 months. The consortium is looking for €54 million from the EU Commission to cover this period and expects to receive €20 million from other sources.
Jari Kinaret, what research will you be prioritising initially?
“Although the flagship is extremely extensive, it cannot cover all areas. For example, we don’t intend to compete with Korea on graphene screens. Graphene production, however, is obviously central to our project. There are a number of different technologies which complement each other in this regard.
In the first few years, we intend to focus our research in the field of communications, concentrating partly on ICT and partly on the physical transport sector and applications in the fields of energy technology and sensors. With regard to ICT, we are looking at high-speed electronics, principally ultra-high frequency radio. Herbert Zirath at the Chalmers Department of Microtechnology and Nanoscience (MC2) is an important player in this field. The field of optoelectronics offers huge opportunities, as the technology of spintronics will further down the line. We also want to use graphene to create pressure-sensitive and chemical sensors. Standard ICT applications will benefit the most.” How many partners have you involved in the flagship pilot?
“We have 74 separate legal persons involved in the Consortium, some with multiple research groups. In total, over 100 research groups with 136 so-called principal investigators are part of the proposal. Among the 136 there are, apart from the four Nobel laureates, 20 researchers who have received prestigious grants from the European Research Council.” Can you tell us how industry is involved?
“The involvement of industry can be divided into three elements. There is a management component, where three of the nine seats on our strategic advisory council are filled by the industrial sector in the form of Nokia, Airbus and Texas Instruments. Then there is a larger group of companies who are research partners and who account for at least 14 percent of the total budget; a figure which could increase to almost 30 percent after open applications have been received.
Thirdly, there is a group of companies who want to monitor development but are not persuaded that the technology is mature enough yet for them to enter the field themselves in terms of research. These include AB Volvo and Autoliv.” Why is industry so important?
“The whole idea is that academia and business will work better together. In Europe we are strong in research, but up to now we have been less successful in deriving financial benefit from research than our counterparts in Asia and the USA. American universities apply for roughly eight times as many patents as European universities. The difference is even starker as regards options and licences. If we count spin-off companies, the difference is less noticeable, but we are still talking about a factor which is 2.5 times higher than in Europe. This is commonly referred to as the European paradox. This is what our flagship is trying to address. If we succeed, the entire “European fleet” will benefit. Where will we see the first breakthroughs?
”The most rapid breakthroughs will be seen in the field of printable and flexile electronics. The advantages in this field are huge compared with existing technology. It is estimated that the market will be worth USD 60 billion a year by 2020, of which more than half will be in flexible electronics. In the USA, graphene is already being used in packaging material which alerts when someone tries to break it open.” And in which areas will the breakthroughs take time?
“Applications in the field of digital electronics and biomedicine will take some time. The technology is not yet mature enough for major initiatives in these fields. Safety requirements are also very stringent in the bio-sector. In the first round, we are investing the equivalent of SEK 40 million, or around 30 man-years, investigating possible risks and health aspects relating to graphene. We have no reason to believe that the risks are particularly high, but we need to adopt the precautionary principle. In Sweden, for example, Bengt Fadeel’s group at the Karolinska Institute is taking part.
What happens if graphene does not get flagship status?
“Then we’ll find something else. But we have high hopes that this is the way forward.“
Text: Christian Borg
Video at the top:
The pilot project "Graphene-Coordinated Action" has produced two video films describing the super-material graphene and the basic concept behind the scientific flagship relating to graphene. The first, "Introducing graphene", has been nominated for a prize at the European Science TV and New Media Awards held on 23 November 2012.
Further information on graphene and on the project
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