Graphene’s spec sheet reads like a superhero profile. Two hundred times stronger than steel, a million times thinner than a human hair and a thousand times more conductive than copper, it’s no surprise that the fabric is called a “miracle material.”
When the sheet was carbon… first isolated in 2004 at the University of Manchester, the breakthrough shook the scientific world. Numerous uses for the “wonder substance” were considered, from storing solar energy to sewing batteries into bodies. At the EU, plans were drawn up to cash in on the promise of the material.
In 2013, the block launched the Graphene Flagship, an initiative to commercialize the material. Backed by a €1 billion budget and nearly 170 academic and industrial partners in 22 countries, the project sparked hopes that Europe would become a graphene powerhouse. However, the early ‘graphene gold rush’ did not immediately lead to wealth. But a promising sector is slowly emerging on the continent.
Among the torchbearers of Europe is Inbrain Neuroelectricity. The spin-off Graphene Flagship, founded in 2019, uses the material to developing neural interfaces. Next year, the Spanish startup plans to set another graphene milestone in the UK: the material’s first implantation in a human brain.
Inbrain’s landmark trial will assess the suitability of graphene-based implants for the treatment of brain disorders. If proven safe and effective, the material could provide numerous benefits for neural interfaces.
We can also see the biomarkers at least 10 times better.
Carolina Aguilar, co-founder and CEO of Inbrain, highlights three specific benefits: miniaturization, reliability, and high-resolution brain signals. This combination allows Inbrain to decode detailed biomarkers of neural activity, while minimizing power consumption and ensuring stability. Over time, the devices could produce personalized, therapeutic treatments for neurological disorders.
These features distinguish graphene from more commonly used metals, such as platinum idiom. Reducing these materials can affect their durability and electrical impedance.
“We also see the biomarkers at least 10 times better than with platinum-iridium,” says Aguilar. “And in some cases, platinum doesn’t even detect these biomarkers, these brain waves that are essential to not only detect, but also to stimulate and then correct.”
Graphene also gives Inbrain an edge over Neuralink, Elon Musk’s brain chip startup. Neuralink devices use a material called Pedot, which breaks down much faster than graphene.
However, these qualities are no guarantee of commercial success. Despite its unique properties, marketing graphene remains a challenge.
Leaving the lab
The Graphene Flagship is not without its critics. Experts have questioned the value of the EU’s massive investment and the slow process of developing real-world applications. The speed shouldn’t be too surprising, though.
“Science is the easy part,” said Konstantin Novoselov, one of the University of Manchester scientists who won a Nobel Prize for isolating graphene. “To develop a technology, you need to know what products you’re targeting, and this should come from the industry.”
It often takes decades to take a new material from discovery to commercialization. Perhaps the biggest current problem in graphene development is providing cost-effective production.
One of the most beneficial solutions was developed by paragraphs, a company that commercializes graphene-based electronics. The Cambridge University spin-out has developed a method to produce high-quality graphene on semiconductor wafers with a diameter of up to 20 cm.
Graphene can reboot Moore’s law.
Paragraf claims to be the first company to offer scalable production of graphene-based electronic devices.
“The challenge was to mass-produce graphene in electronics using standard semiconductor processes,” Paragraf CCO Tom Wilson tells TNW. “Paragraf really did that. Paragraf has turned graphene into an industry-ready solution.”
Paragraf’s graphene-based sensors can power a range of applications, from quantum computers to rapid COVID-19 testing. Early customers include Rolls-Royce and Cern’s research lab.
Wilson is optimistic about the benefits of graphene for computer chips.
“Many are familiar with Moore’s Law, where the benefits we get from going smaller, submicron, have leveled off over time. Graphene has the promise to reboot Moore’s law.”
However, this potential is being held back by a global shortage of semiconductors.
A global race heats up
The Paragraf team has expressed frustration at the UK’s delay in launching a semiconductor strategy. They have also expressed concerns about the post-Brexit talent pipeline and inadequate support for university spin-offs.
In August, Paragraf CEO Simon Thomas threatened to move the company’s base to the US because the UK government “don’t know what it’s doing”.
Wilson adds that clear trade and customs agreements are needed to facilitate the acquisition of capital goods, as well as new immigration policies to improve access to talent.
Whichever way they go, the key is clarity.
“While we would certainly welcome if the UK government could find the money to create the equivalent of a US or European ‘chips act’, we don’t expect this to happen,” he says.
“What we do hope is that the government will provide the necessary support, either by getting out of the way or introducing supportive legislation – whichever way they go, the key is clarity and removing uncertainty so that the business can continue and do its job. what he is best at.”
Meanwhile, the EU could give the green light to its European Chips Act at the end of the year. The new legislation aims to increase the bloc’s share of global chip production from the current 5% to 20% by the end of 2030.
That would be a boost for Inbrain’s technology, which also relies on semiconductors. For Aguilar, the company’s CEO, the EU’s biggest shortcomings are insufficient venture capital and infrastructure support.
“For R&D,” sheEurope spent a lot on the R and not much on the D say.
Despite the challenges, optimism about the future of graphene is growing again. Wilson believes that “a revolution in advanced materials electronics” has begun. But Europe has yet to strengthen its place at the forefront.
Manufacturing challenges, funding shortfalls and competition from China and the US remain major obstacles to the EU’s ambitions. The bloc has yet to find mass markets for the wonder material.