Upon receiving the prestigious Copley medal from the Royal Society this week, Sir Andre Geim, the co-discoverer of graphene, said during an interview:
"I'm not interested in going into industry or property development or creating 'graphene valley' as the government would like me to. It's a bit silly for society to throw a little bit of money at something and expect it to change the world. Everything takes time."
Thank you, Professor Geim. Somebody had to say it.
Geim’s comments come in response to questions about the UK’s large financial commitment to making the country a “graphene hub" so there won't be a repeat of the UK supposedly losing its leadership role in nanotechnology. The UK government announced earlier this year that it plans to invest approximately US $71 million in a single research facility at the University of Manchester.
In the six years that I have been writing this blog, I have consistently said that attempts by regional governments to throw money at nanotechnology to create a so-called “Silicon Valley” of nanotechnology in their respective regions were largely misguided. To the extent that building facilities and attracting top-flight scientists to one specific region can lead to an economic boom, as some believe is possible or at least helpful, that positive movement is often offset by the lack of patience and ensuing frustration people succumb to when they don’t see immediate results.
By many estimates, the bulk of the commercial applications that will come from graphene won’t arrive until around 2020. With the large investments that are going into graphene now, and the long wait before those investments show return, one can’t help but think we’re headed for the same kind of disappointment many felt about carbon nanotubes when graphene started to emerge as a competitive form of carbon.
Geim also vents his frustration at the confusion that results when a new social media outlet is equated with actual technological breakthroughs. Geim characterizes social media sites as “utterly time wasting” and their developers as “making billions from a few lines of computer code."
This confusion between a new iPhone app and developing post-silicon electronics lies at the heart of people’s frustration with the development of nanotechnology. When they see a new app offered up every day, they wonder why nanotechnology hasn’t changed their lives, at least in ways that they recognize. It also demonstrates the inefficiency of technology investment when billions can go into a company whose long-term business model is still unclear, while the technologies that will maintain computer hardware technology to keep these social media sites available tend to languish, desperate to find any funding. Of course, from an investment perspective, you want to invest a little and get a big return and get that return back quickly.
Investment perspectives notwithstanding, Sir Andre Geim is right to point out the cognitive dissonance on display when all the investment goes into an industry that has little in the way of capital costs but ambiguous revenue streams, while nanotechnology, with its high capital costs but clear business model (selling stuff) goes unfunded. And then when nanomaterials fail to perform because of this lack of investment, everybody clamors, “What went wrong?” You don’t have to wait seven years from now to get your answer, Geim has already given it to you.
Photo: Friedrun Reinhold/Koerber-Stiftung/Reuters
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.