Jari Kinaret runs Europe’s largest research flagship

“Perkele! Is this what my taxes are going to? There must be better ideas,” thought physics professor Jari Kinaret as he sat at Chalmers reading a number of proposals for EU research projects.
So he wrote his own proposal, and sowed the seed that grew into Europe’s biggest research initiative ever – the Graphene Flagship.
It was in late spring 2010 when the European Commission sent out the email that sparked Kinaret’s initiative. The Commission had sent an open invitation to submit project ideas for European research flagships. The Commission planned to invest major resources in the best projects, and competition was keen.
“Some of the applicants had already been developing and lobbying for their ideas for a long time, but I wasn’t very impressed,” Kinaret says. “I thought graphene was a better idea, and I got the opportunity to present my proposal in Brussels. They said I would have five minutes for my presentation, but I only got three.”

A whole world of new opportunities

At the time, graphene was a young, growing research field – both at Chalmers and elsewhere in Europe. But outside the research world, few people knew what graphene was – at least until the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded that autumn: “A thin flake of ordinary carbon, just one atom thick, lies behind this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov have shown that carbon in such a flat form has exceptional properties that originate from the remarkable world of quantum physics.”
That’s how the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences described the ground-breaking discovery in its press release on 5 October 2010. 
Graphene is the very thinnest form of carbon, but it’s very strong. It also has unique heat and electricity conducting properties, which opens up a whole world of new opportunities. That’s what Kinaret focused on, and in autumn 2010 he submitted an initial application to the European Commission with a handful of partners around Europe. The application was accepted, and in the following year the consortium was expanded with dozens more partners. The big flagship application was prepared under Chalmers’ administration.
The process took time, but in early 2013 he received the good news while travelling in Japan. The project had been granted EUR 1 billion for the coming 10 years, and the Graphene Flagship could be launched.
“I was inundated with congratulations when I landed at Landvetter Airport,” Kinaret reminisces. “It was really a big deal that we’d succeeded. I remember we drank champagne with the University President.” Since then, Kinaret has headed the project, which is coordinated by the Department of Physics at Chalmers.

Graphene-based products are starting to hit the shelves​

Today the Graphene Flagship has over 150 partners in more than 20 countries and involves in excess of 1,200 people. The overall goal is to transfer various types of graphene-based technology to society to create benefit, growth and job opportunities.
“We can do extremely advanced things in the lab, but it’s a big challenge to go from small-scale craftsmanship to industrial manufacturing in giant series. It takes a long time to develop products, but the first graphene-based electronics products are starting to hit the shelves.”
Examples include high-speed, highly sensitive detectors and bendable electronic gadgets. Other coming developments in the next few years are rapid-charging, flexible batteries with high storage capacity and more efficient fuel cells.
There are already products on the market that have been “doped up” with graphene to improve their characteristics, such as stronger, lighter tennis rackets; motorcycle helmets and a Chalmers dinghy that literally flies across the water’s surface.
The future also holds possibilities that sound almost like science fiction. For example, an artificial retina. A blind person may be able to see using a small camera that communicates with a graphene membrane attached to the damaged retina. Since graphene can convert light to electrical signals, the brain can get the information it needs to see what the camera sees.
“This type of technology already exists, but graphene can give better resolution,” Kinaret tells us in his calm, matter-of-fact way. “But there will be a very long development time before it can be put into use.”

A driving force to exceed expectations 

There is no doubt that it will take a lot of tenacity, strength and patience to steer such a complex research vessel as the Graphene Flagship. But Kinaret seems to have the necessary perseverance. He is most proud when he succeeds at something he doesn’t feel he has a natural talent for.
“Things that come to you easily are nothing to be proud of,” he says. “The greatest thing is always when you exceed expectations – above all your own. That’s the very hardest thing to do.”

And the tax money – is it going to the right things now? 
“Yes, I’m happier than I would have been with the other alternatives. They weren’t all bad, but this is better,” he says candidly. 

Jari Kinaret has visited Gunnebo House outside Gothenburg many times over the years. He often brought his family here when his children were small to look at the animals, walk through the grounds and enjoy coffee and cakes. Gunnebo House has another thing in common with Jari Kinaret and the Graphene Flagship – a clear link to the EU. The project “Gunnebo – back to the 18th century” was started with EU funding. While graphene is about building the future, Gunnebo is making the most of its historic environment.

More about Jari Kinaret

Born: 27 February 1962 in Kokkola in the Ostrobothnia region of Finland. 
Lives: A house in Mölndal outside Gothenburg. 
Family: Wife and two daughters, aged 16 and 20.  
Job: Professor of physics at Chalmers, head of the Division of Condensed Matter Theory, director of the Graphene Flagship, which is the EU’s biggest research investment and is coordinated by the Department of Physics at Chalmers. 
Career in brief: Earned a master’s degree in theoretical physics at Oulu University in 1986 and a degree in electrical engineering at the same university in 1987, before moving to the United States for further studies. He earned his doctorate in physics at the prestigious MIT in 1992 and spent some time working in Denmark. He came to Gothenburg in 1995 for a position at Gothenburg University, and since 1998 he has been on the Chalmers staff, where he has been a professor for ten years. Kinaret has also been the head of the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Area of Advance at Chalmers. Since 2013 he has headed the Graphene Flagship. He is also in charge of the Division of Condensed Matter Theory at the Department of Physics.

Leisure interests: “My wife and I really enjoy jigsaw puzzles. The biggest one we have at home is probably 3,000 pieces. I also like mathematical puzzles, and I can clearly remember when I got my first Rubik’s cube at age 19. The first time, it took me two weeks to solve it, but then I practised a lot. My best time was 20–30 seconds. But it takes me longer now!”
Favourite place for inspiration: “In the past I think it was the Delsjö area, where I did a lot of running. Now I don’t have any particular place where I get inspiration, but I like to visit Bertilssons Stuga (in the Delsjö Nature Reserve) or Gunnebo House for coffee.”
Most proud of: “This is a question I often ask when conducting job interviews, so I’ve also considered what my own answer would be. Here are three things in chronological order where I exceeded my own expectations:
1. When I wrote my essay for my upper-secondary school diploma in Finland I got 98 of 99 points. That made me really proud because I don’t have a natural talent for writing.
2. After upper-secondary school, I did my military duty and got into the reserve officers’ academy. I’m good at reading, but this was something completely different, and far from my core skills. So I’m proud to have earned top marks there.
3. The Graphene Flagship – that was a big, important win. When we started out in 2010, we weren’t among the favourites, but we beat out the competition.”
Motivation: “From the start, it was mostly curiosity. I’ve always liked mathematical reasoning. But the Graphene Flagship is different. It’s about seeing what we can accomplish with the project – how we can create real benefit in society.”

First memory of physics: “Maybe this is more maths than physics, but I remember that we had a maths assignment in primary school where there was a mistake. The answer you got was a negative number, and I thought about what that meant. It turned out I had found a printing error in the book. I also remember reading about the Pythagorean theorem, which defines the relationship between the lengths of the sides of a right triangle. I was maybe seven or eight when I developed my own theorem that could be used for triangles that didn’t have a right angle. I remember that it sort of worked, and looking back, I’m really curious about how I managed that. I don’t have any paperwork left from it...”
The best thing about being a scientist: “Being able to decide what to work on. That’s a freedom that allows me to work on things that interest me. That freedom is the best thing, without a doubt.”
Challenges of the job: “Balance – ensuring a reasonable workload. It’s not good to have too much or too little work, but I tend to prefer having a bit too much when I know what I have to do… I’ve had problems with stress, and you need to set boundaries. In my role, it’s about trusting your employees and delegating more. You don’t always get everything your own way, but there’s no time to do everything yourself. You also need to take time to recuperate during periods with a lower workload.”
Dream for the future: “I dream of being able to find a way to allow future generations to live a life they’re happy with. It’s not obvious how we in Europe can create a competitive advantage over places like China and India. A large proportion of all manufacturing industries are outside Europe today, and we need to be involved in creating job opportunities for our children and grandchildren.”

Text: Mia Halleröd Palmgren, mia.hallerodpalmgren@chalmers.se​
Foto 1: Henrik Sandsjö
Foto2: Mia Halleröd Palmgren


Published: Wed 24 Oct 2018. Modified: Thu 18 Oct 2018