Last year, the European Commission (EC) announced what many considered an ambitious €1-billion ($1.3 billion) investment in graphene research and development that will be spread over 10 years.
The EC project, dubbed the Graphene Flagship, was described as a way to smooth the path for graphene as it makes its way from research labs into commercial markets.
With graphene-enabled products still struggling to reach the marketplace, and most not expected to have a commercial impact until 2020, it would seem Graphene Flagship would be a welcome development. However, it remains primarily an academic investment in graphene research.
This, of course, begs the question as to what sort of commercial impact can be expected with the Graphene Flagship even when viewed over the long haul.
In the field of nanotechnology, we have witnessed many countries supporting the basic research, but turn away when the fruits of that research require a way to bridge the gap between the lab and the fab. For example, the Russian nanotechnology initiative, RusNano, has based itself largely on buying the discarded companies from other countries that were originally launched on the basic research supported by local government investments.
To delve into this issue and reveal how the Graphene Flagship will help bring a novel material into industrial applications, we spoke to Professor Jari Kinaret, Director of the Graphene Flagship, and Director of the AoA Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and leader of the Condensed Matter Theory (CMT) group at the Department of Applied Physics at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, to get some answers.
Jari Kinaret, a physics professor at Chalmers University and director of The Graphene Flagship.
Q: During the press conference for the announcement of the “Graphene Flagship”, Konstantin Novoselov said that graphene is at the “education and tech transfer” stage of its development. Novoselov explained that this involves industry sending out scouts to determine the right technology for them in graphene applications.
Can you explain how €1 billion over 10 years--that at least initially will be going to academic research institutes--helps the process of bringing graphene to industrial applications?
A: Graphene technology is still very much in its infancy. There are few processes or products that are ready to be integrated in real life applications, and getting there requires collaboration across the entire value chain, involving academic and industrial researchers. The academic ones may have a better idea of what is possible, while the industrial ones are more informed of what is needed, and to get to the results, these two attributes must meet.
Q: Will there be a mechanism in which the €1 billion will go to fund companies that want to develop a business around graphene for a particular application? For example, a company has sourced graphene sufficient for their purposes and they can make a device from the graphene, but they lack the capital to produce a product. Will those interests be able to get funding from this €1 billion?
A: We will not be able to capitalize industries. The same rules apply as for other EC funded collaborative research: during FP7 large companies can get 50% of their R&D costs in the project funded by the EC (for SMEs the figure is 75%), in the Horizon 2020 phase the conditions will be more favorable but the flagship will still not provide capital of the type that you are referring to.
Q: Can you roughly outline how much of the €1 billion will go to fund further fundamental research like measurement, characterization and even the synthesis of new 2D materials, and how much will go to companies trying to develop products using graphene?
A: This will naturally evolve with time and vary from field to field. Starting October 2015 the flagship consortium will be about 25% companies and 75% research institutes and universities. I expect the balance to shift more and more towards companies as the time progresses – this we saw already in our competitive call that was completed in the spring, where about a third of the successful applicants came from industry.
Q: If it is generally agreed that academic research around the world is roughly on the same level when it comes to graphene, but the difference is that some regions (namely Asia) have companies that are integrated in such a way that they can exploit a novel material, what difference does it make improving the relationship between academia and industry? Doesn’t European industry need to address its own inability to integrate new technologies?
A: Well, this is not an easy issue. Companies that deal with everything probably cannot be world leading in all topics, while more specialized companies must rely on collaborations to tackle tasks that are not in their fields of expertise. Different companies have chosen different strategies, but in general specialization is probably a better choice. Specialization requires more collaboration, which is why we need initiatives such as the flagship.
Q: If issues around intellectual property and tech transfer mechanisms need to be improved around graphene (as well as many other emerging technologies coming out of the labs) how will the Graphene Flagship address those issues?
A: We have a specific work package looking into innovation aspects including IPR (Intellectual Property Rights). These discussions and negotiations are challenging as the practices vary between technology branches and from country to country, but we have a team working hard on designing a more ambitious model for collaborative innovation than has typically been the case in European projects.
Q: Is it possible for a novel material in which research is going on all around the world to be directed in such a way that an economic impact is focused on only one region? Won’t industry look for the cheapest and most reliable location for producing certain devices no matter where the original research occurred?
A: Indeed, innovations and ideas will spread all over the world and individual actors will undoubtedly optimize their activities by choosing manufacturing locations and other sites as they see appropriate. Where these locations are, varies a lot. Graphene technology places high demands on qualified work force and relatively low demands on raw materials, which may change the choices of manufacturing locations. Also, different parts of the industrial value chain in graphene and related materials may be based in different parts of the world – for instance, airplane and high-end automotive manufacturing need not be adjacent to the basic materials production.
Q: With many not expecting graphene applications having any kind of substantial impact until 2020, what are the applications that the Graphene Flagship will be focusing on to have an early impact?
A: The early applications are more likely to use exfoliated graphene flakes than large sheets of graphene. Functional and structural nanocomposites fall in this category – wind power plant blades are one specific example. Other low-hanging fruits are applications where graphene and related materials offer advantages as new or greatly improved functionalities. Here advanced batteries or supercapacitors in anything from portable electric appliances to cars is a promising direction. Also flexible electronics – screens, sensors, smart textiles etc. – are coming strongly. Applications that require large, defect free graphene sheets are likely to take longer time to develop; many solid state electronic applications fall in this category.
Read more about the Graphene Flagship: