Energy-efficient, high-speed electronics on a nanoscale and screens for mobile telephones and computers that are so thin they can be rolled up. Just a couple of examples of what the super-material graphene could give us. But is European industry up to making these visions a reality?
Seldom has a Nobel Prize in physics sparked the imagination of gadget nerds to such an extent. When Andrej Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester were rewarded in 2010 for their graphene experiments, it was remarkably easy to provide examples of future applications, mainly in the form of consumer electronics with a level of performance that up to now was virtually inconceivable.
It's not just the IT sector that is watering at the mouth at the thought of graphene. Even in the energy, medical and material technology sectors there are high hopes of using these spectacular properties. Perhaps talk of a future carbon-based technical revolution was no exaggeration.
Even if graphene has not attracted a great deal of attention in the media recently, the research world has been working feverishly behind the scenes. Last year, around 6,000 scientific articles were published worldwide in which the focus was on graphene. About six months ago, new research results were published that reinforced more than ever the idea of graphene as a potential replacement for silicon in the electronics of the future.
"As late as last autumn this was still a long-term goal bearing in mind the major challenges that are involved," explains Professor Jari Kinaret, Head of the Nanoscience Area of Advance at Chalmers. "Then a pioneering publication appeared from Manchester showing that graphene could be combined with other similar two-dimensional materials in a sandwich structure."
"The power consumption of a transistor built using this principle would be just one millionth or so compared to previous prototypes."
Jari Kinaret also heads Graphene Coordinated Action, an initiative to reinforce and bring together graphene research within the EU.
In line with the growing interest in graphene throughout the world, the EU is at risk of losing ground particularly in applied research.
"Integrating the whole chain, from basic research to product, is something that we are by tradition not particularly skilled at in Europe compared with the Asians or the Americans," explains Jari Kinaret. He presents a pie graph on the computer to illustrate his point.
The first graph shows that to date academic research into graphene has been split fairly evenly split between the USA, Asia and Europe. However, the pie graph showing patent applications from each region is strikingly similar to the size relationship between Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.
"Something is wrong here and we're going to fix it," states Jari Kinaret.
The idea is that the research groups that are currently working independently of each other will be linked in a network and will be able to benefit from each other's results.
This planned European gathering of strengths, however, presupposes more funding, which is on the horizon in the form of "scientific flagships" the EU Commission designation for the high-profile research initiatives with ten-year funding due to be launched next year.
Last year, Graphene Coordinated Action was named as one of the six pilot projects with a chance of being raised to flagship status. This would mean a budget of around SEK 10 billion throughout the whole period.
The downside is that only two flagships will be launched, leaving four pilots standing.
"If we are selected, it would mean a substantial increase in grants for European graphene research up to 50 per cent more than at present," states Jari Kinaret.
"If we are unsuccessful, then hopefully we will at least retain our present financial framework."
Jari Kinaret has recently submitted the project's final report to the Commission. He is optimistic about their chances.
"One of our obvious strengths is the level of scientific excellence. Nobel Prize Winners Geim and Novoselov are members of our strategy committee along with a further two Nobel Prize Winners. That's hard to beat."
Alongside aspects bordering on science fiction, there is a very tangible side to graphene.
The fact is that now and then most people produce a little graphene inadvertently of course. And some even eat graphene.
The link between nanoscience and daily life is the lead pencil. From its tip, a layer of soft graphite is transferred onto the surface of the paper when we draw and write. (At the same time, some of us chew the other end as we think).
If we were to study a strongly magnified pencil trace, a layer of graphite would be seen that is perhaps 100 atom layers thick. However, the outer edge of the trace becomes thinner and increasingly transparent and at some point the layer becomes so thin it comprises just one single layer of carbon atoms.
That's where it is the graphene. It is also the background to the motto adopted by Graphene Coordinated Action: The future in a pencil trace.
At the stroke of a pencil, the future of this planned research initiative will be decided towards the end of this year when the secret EU Commission jury will decide which of the two pilots will share the billions available for research.
Graphene is a form of graphite, i.e. carbon, which comprises one single cohesive layer of atoms. It is super-thin, super-strong and transparent. It can be bent and stretched and it has a singular capacity to conduct both electricity and heat.
The existence of graphene has been known for a long time although in 2004 Geim and Novoselov succeeded in producing flakes of material in an entirely new way by breaking it away from the graphite with the aid of standard household tape.
Graphene nowadays is also produced using other methods.
The centre of Swedish graphene research is Chalmers.
SOON ON TOUCH SCREENS AND IN MOBILE PHONES
The emphasis in Graphene Coordinated Action is on applied research. Ultimately, there is the potential somewhere on the horizon to build up a European industry around graphene and similar two-dimensional materials both as components and finished products. Consequently, several large companies are included in the network, including mobile phone manufacturer Nokia.
"As graphene is both transparent and conductive, it is obviously of interest for use in the touchscreens and displays of the future. But graphene could also be used in battery technology or as reinforcement in the shell of mobile telephones," states Claudio Marinelli at the Nokia Research Department in Cambridge, England.
At Nokia, research has been conducted for a couple of years on potential applications for graphene within mobile communication. Claudio Marinelli estimates that by 2015 at the latest Nokia will be using graphene in one application or another in its telephones.
"Even when it comes to identification and other data transfer via the screen, technology based on graphene is conceivable," he says.
Farther down the line, he believes that the bendability and flexibility of graphene could become part of mobile communication and be used in products that at present we might find a little difficult to imagine.
"We believe that graphene technology will have a major impact on our business area. That is why it was an obvious move for us to be involved in this research project."
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