Two years ago, the European Commission announced the Graphene Flagship, a 10-year, €1 billion effort to help move graphene out of research labs and into commercial applications. The massive effort, which celebrates its second anniversary this week, now includes groups from 23 countries. How has it fared? IEEE Spectrum senior associate editor Rachel Courtland catches up with flagship director Jari Kinaret, a theoretical physicist based at Chalmers University in Sweden, to talk about the program’s progress, graphene hype, and the role of other 2-D materials.
To start off, how has the flagship program performed so far?
We are on track to do what we had promised. The first year, we produced more than 300 publications and nearly 600 conference talks, and filed a number of patent applications and some invention disclosures.
One thing that has happened is that we have increased the number of industrial partners. Two years ago, when the flagship started, we were about 75 partners. Something like 20 percent of them were industrial. Then we went through our competitive call, and we added another dozen partners last spring. So, right now we are about 140 partners and the industrial portion is maybe 25 percent. Next April, we will be about 150 partners, and about one-third of them will be industries. This increase in the industrial nature of the program is quite visible, and it’s very much according to plan.
Do you have a sense of where the research community and industry would be without this funding? How do you measure the impact of the program?
Of course as a scientist you would like to do a controlled measurement. You have one sample where you do something and then you have another sample where you don’t do something and you can see the difference. You can’t do that with this kind of one-time event. You can’t have Europe with the flagship and Europe without the flagship and compare those two.
What we can see is that the flagship, through its visibility, has engaged many new industrial branches and many new companies. We cover a very broad range of activities, from say, basic chemical companies like BASF, to component manufacturers—ST Microelectronics would be an example—to systems integrators such as Airbus. Without the flagship, it would be very difficult for actors in different parts of the value chain to find each other. Now we can bring them all together, and they can work together saying, “to make my components better, I need this kind of material” or “to make a new system if would be really great if we had a component like this.”
So people can work along the entire chain vertically, but also horizontally. People working with high-frequency electronics or photonics or sensors see that, while the applications are rather different, the manufacturing techniques that need to be developed to commercialize them are similar. We are now working across work packages to focus more on the manufacturing issues. That would be very difficult, if not impossible, without the flagship.
Then there is the great catalyst effect. Many partners have used their participation [to attract] additional funding from their own governments or private funders. Membership is taken as a token of quality.
Are there any accomplishments so far that you’re particularly proud of?
The one that has had perhaps the most media interest is something called [the] shear exfoliation technique, work that was done by Jonathan Coleman and his group at Trinity College Dublin. It is basically a way that you can make graphene in your own kitchen. This shear exfoliation technique has been commercialized by Thomas Swan & Co, Ltd. in the U.K.
Another example, is that we have a group of [researchers] who got together to make a very fast graphene-based photodetector that functions at 50 GHz. It was slightly embarrassing, because they know it functions at least at 50 GHz, but that’s where their measurement equipment finished. They estimated that it functions probably at 200 GHz. That kind of technology has raised a lot of interest among companies that are interested in optical fiber communication.
The third one I would like to pick shows the benefit of the flagship to organizations that are not partners. In the Graphene Week conference last summer in Manchester, which the Graphene Flagship organizes, [Robert Roelver at Bosch] reported on work that they had done with a flagship partner, the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, developing a graphene-based magnetic field sensor that was 100 times more efficient than any other existing magnetic field sensor. These magnetic field sensors may sound esoteric, but we have them in cell phones as a backup to GPS. That’s three examples that I can give you right off the top of my head.
Where do you hope to be when the flagship is complete?
At the end of 10 years, we hope that graphene and related layered materials have left the academic laboratories and entered society as new products in many areas. This is a very ambitious goal if you think of other new materials, like carbon fiber composites. They were developed in the 70’s, roughly speaking, and now they are starting to make an appearance in things like [family] cars. We want to get to that point, and we realize 10 years is too short to make it all the way. But in 10 years we can certainly make it a good part of the way there, so that in some areas, people are no longer surprised or raising eyebrows if they hear, ‘This is made of graphene.’”
There’s already a lot of discussion about graphene’s applications, and it seems like a lot of people are asking whether the material is overly hyped.
Yes, a very good point. One of the things I always show in my presentations these days is something called the Gartner hype cycle.
It’s clear that graphene has probably passed the high peak, the peak of inflated expectations, and we are in the downward-going slope. That downward-going slope of the hype occurs when people realize that this isn’t the solution to all the world’s problems. Typically it’s associated with negative press. People are starting to wonder if everything that has been promised is only hot air or if something is really coming out of it.
What we hope to do is make this dip less dramatic. One way it’s probably going to be less dramatic is that different graphene technologies mature at different rates. If you are in the sports field, you would have to say that graphene has already reached the plateau of productivity. The plateau of productivity is where your reaction if you hear that something contains graphene is, “so what?” It basically has no news value. I can take a ten-minute walk from my office and buy both alpine skis and tennis racquets made of graphene composites. It’s becoming, if not commonplace, at least within reach. Other areas like graphene-based electronics are going to take a much longer time to get to the plateau of productivity.
How can you push a graphene-based technology toward that plateau of productivity?
You need to identify the applications that are worth pursuing. Those could be applications where the replacement of an existing material by graphene is relatively simple or applications where the benefit of using graphene is worth the extra effort.
One thing that seems to be common is the gap between the stage where it works in the lab and the place where it works well enough that you can be pretty sure that it will be a product. External programs such as the flagship, where many partners collaborate and share the risk, are very helpful.
Graphene lacks a natural band gap, the energy barrier in a semiconductor that gives the material a natural “off” and “on” state. Is this a big issue?
This is a non-issue in many areas—take composite materials or using graphene in electrodes in batteries. In photonics, that means you can absorb light regardless of wavelength, so it’s a very positive aspect. In digital electronics it is close to being a game stopper. You can’t just take your silicon MOSFET design and replace the silicon with graphene, because you would find great difficulty in turning your transistor off. For high-frequency applications, the issue is not nearly as bad but it is still a challenge.
For digital electronics, there is still quite a lot of promise, because the electrons are so fast. You need to come up with some other kind of design than the standard MOSFET structure. People are working on that. Tunneling transistors or other vertical structures show a respectable on-off ratio, but have challenges when it comes to manufacturing. So yes, lack of bandgap is an issue. You probably should not take the hexagonal piece of graphene and try to fit it into the circular hole that is digital electronics.
What about other two-dimensional materials?
Indeed, some of them have bandgaps and therefore they would be easier substitutes for silicon. There are challenges regarding the materials’ quality, production, and integration with existing technologies, but as far as existence of a bandgap is concerned, they certainly offer an easier solution than graphene does.
Other materials have been in the flagship from the very beginning, and they still are in the flagship. If one was pedantic, it should be called “Graphene and Related Materials Flagship”, but that just does not work. Your editor would not allow you to have a title like that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
When physicists talk about graphene, we think first about the electronics applications, because they tend to be closest to our minds. The real first applications may be in areas we perhaps don’t prioritize so much, things like different kinds of composite materials.
Now people are getting excited about the fact that graphene is an impermeable membrane—it doesn’t let anything to go through. If you have an impermeable membrane, you can make holes in it, and you can choose what goes through and what doesn’t. So you may be able to separate carbon dioxide from other gases, and that would be of great interest for, say, carbon sequestration. The fact that there is more to the world than electronics is, I think, what we are learning to appreciate more and more.
Rachel Courtland, an unabashed astronomy aficionado, is a former senior associate editor at Spectrum. She now works in the editorial department at Nature. At Spectrum, she wrote about a variety of engineering efforts, including the quest for energy-producing fusion at the National Ignition Facility and the hunt for dark matter using an ultraquiet radio receiver. In 2014, she received a Neal Award for her feature on shrinking transistors and how the semiconductor industry talks about the challenge.