In the spring of 2010, physicist Jari Kinaret received an email from the European Commission. The EU executive was looking for pitches from scientists for ambitious new mega projects. Known as flagships, the initiatives would focus on innovations that could transform Europe’s scientific and industrial landscape.
Kinaret, a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, examined the original proposals.
“I was not very impressed,” the 60-year-old tells TNW. “I thought they could find better ideas.”
Coincidentally, Kinaret had an idea of his own: to grow graphene. He decided to put the subject up for consideration.
That proposal laid the foundation for the Graphene flagship: the largest European research program ever. Launched in 2013 with a budget of €1 billion, the project aimed to make the “wonder material” mainstream within 10 years.
Ahead of that deadline, TNW spoke to Kinaret about the project’s progress over the past decade – and his hopes for the next decade.
Graphene arrives in Europe
Scientists have been chasing the single layer of carbon atoms that make up graphene since 1859, but its existence wasn’t confirmed until 2004. The big breakthrough was caused by a remarkably simple product: adhesive tape.
Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two physicists at the University of Manchester, regularly held “Friday night experiments,” exploring outlandish ideas. In one such session, adhesive tape was used to extract small flakes from a lump of graphite. After repeatedly separating the thinnest fragments, they created flakes only one atom thick.
The researchers had isolated graphene – the first two-dimensional material ever discovered.
The scientific world was buzzing 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 won a Nobel Prize for their discovery. The awarding committee envisioned endless applications: touchscreens, light panels, solar cells, satellites, meteorology and, er, virtually invisible hammocks for cats.
Kinaret recognized the potential. Three years later, he led an EU campaign to take graphene from the lab to the market.
Hype vs reality
Commercializing graphene was never going to be easy. Studies suggest that innovations typically take between five and seven decades to progress from inventions to products with significant market shares. Evolution would be slow, but observers were already impatient.
As director of the Flagship, Kinaret had to live up to such high expectations. He often referred to it during conversations the Gartner hype cyclea representation of how new technologies evolve.
The timeline begins with a breakthrough that excites the media. In the case of graphene, reporters were quick to claim that the material would replace silicon.
“Graphene cannot replace silicon,” says Kinaret. “Graphene is a semi-metal; it is not a semiconductor.”
When reality falls short of such inflated expectations, interest rates fall and investment declines. Gartner describes this phase as the “trough of disillusionment”. Graphene seems to have emerged from this predicament, thanks in part to the EU’s long-term commitment.
The donors that remain are generally more practical and persistent. Now their goal is mainstream adoption.
“That’s something we promised – and delivered.
Initially, many commercial partners were economical with their investments. A very large European company had a budget of only €20,000 for 30 months – “just enough to buy coffee for the people who work on it, but not really enough to do anything substantial”, Kinaret recalls.
To increase their involvement, the flagship needed their trust, which was challenging as rival brands would have to work together. Nokia, for example, should cooperate with Ericsson.
“One dimension of trust that people needed was trust that this is real,” says Kinaret. “The other is that participants had to trust each other.”
The current membership of the Flagship suggests that confidence is now assured. Today, the share of companies has grown from 15% to about 50%. The other half are research organizations or universities.
Kinaret describes the growth of industrial involvement as the most important development of the flagship.
“That’s something we promised, and it’s something we delivered,” he says.
From lab to fantastic
Approximately 100 products have emerged from the Graphene Flagship. The vast majority are business-to-business technologies, such as thermal coating for racing cars and environmental friendly packaging for electronic devices. Consumer products have been slower to market.
Kinaret highlights some of his favourites. One is Qrva Spanish spin-off making graphene-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 about $500 each,” says Kinaret. “The graphene detectors could cost about $1 each. That would be a total game changer in that industry.
Another highlight for Kinaret is Inbrain Neuroelectronics. The startup is developing graphene-based implants that can monitor brain signals and treat neurological disorders.
The devices could eventually stimulate the brain to control tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease. Traditional electrodes can achieve this, but they are much stiffer than highly flexible graphene.
“The brain is like a lump of jelly — it keeps moving,” Kinaret says. “If you put a stiff electrode there, you get scarring.
Kinaret is also excited about the prospects for basic science. In 2018, Graphene Flagship partners revealed that more than 2,000 materials may exist in 2D form. Not all of them are stable, but several 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 several layers.
“You can grow them so that there is a very specific twist angle between the different layers, which means they are a little bit misaligned. This misalignment angle is a very important new parameter,” says Kinaret.
“By tuning this angle of alignment, you can make materials that are superconducting and have very interesting optical properties. This has only been explored for about four years, in terms of basic research, and it’s still quite far from applications. But it offers interesting possibilities for the future.”
Kinaret is proud of the Flagship’s achievements. He believes that the initiative has largely exceeded its objectives.
The data seems to support his claims. The European Commission aims to convert every €10 million invested into one patent application. The flagship, says Kinaret, has more than 10 times that requirement. Targets for scientific publications, he adds, have been surpassed by a similar factor.
There are still challenges to overcome. In electronics, for example, high-quality graphene must be transferred from the substrate it is grown on to the system in which it is used. The Flagship can do this manually, but automating the process on an industrial scale is proving more difficult.
Nevertheless, Kinaret reminds the team to stay positive.
“Engineers tend to be short-term optimists and long-term pessimists,” he says. “They initially expect progress to be much faster than it appears, but ultimately they underestimate the impact of new technologies.”
Going forward, Kinaret expects Europe to become a graphene powerhouse. The flagship has given the continent an edge over the US in the race to the mainstream.
He does admit that laymen are still asking what graphene is and what it can do.
“When we get into a situation where a surprised ‘what?’ has been replaced by ‘so what?’ because it has become ubiquitous or mainstream… then we have made it.”