Professor Andrea Ferrari, the Science and Technology Officer and Chair of the Graphene Flagship Management Panel, met with SciTech Europa at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, to discuss how the Flagship has evolved.
Professor Andrea Ferrari is the Science and Technology Officer and Chair of the Graphene Flagship Management Panel. He earned a PhD in electrical engineering from Cambridge University, after a Laurea in nuclear engineering from Politecnico di Milano, Italy. He is Professor of Nanotechnology and the Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre and of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Graphene Technology, and his research interests include nanomaterials growth, modelling, characterisation, and devices.
SciTech Europa caught up with Ferrari at the 2019 edition of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, to discuss some of the ways that the Graphene Flagship has evolved since it was selected by the European Commission in 2013 to be one of two FET Flagship projects, as well as other issues such as standardisation and the potential impact of Brexit.
There are ‘myths’ around the cost of producing graphene. Could you explain how the Flagship’s technologies are ensuring the scalability of production at low cost?
In 2019, there is no major issue in scaling up graphene production. In Europe, we have many companies able to produce multiple tonnes of the material per year – if needed, they can even produce hundreds of tonnes. This is also true, of course, for companies outside of Europe as well. Europe also has numerous companies that can produce films in sizes up to hundreds of square metres.
There are certain misconceptions when it comes to graphene, including that it is difficult to scale up production or that we have a bottle neck there. The real issue is matching the graphene that is produced with what you want it to do; that is a challenge, because each application has different needs.
For example, if one wants to use graphene for 5G telecommunications, in modulators, just one gram of graphene could be used to create a huge number of these modulators. However, if you want to use graphene in an aeroplane, a bicycle, a helmet, or a shoe, for example, then you need a much higher quantity of the material, and you will also need a different quality. This is different again if you want to make a supercapacitor. Today, then, the challenge is not whether we can make, say, 200 tonnes of graphene; it is how we can make the graphene to match the requirements of the end product.
Is there thus a need for standardisation?
Of course, there is a need for standardisation in any technology. When it comes to graphene, some producers generate material that is not always the same. On the other hand, the most successful companies are not simply producing graphene in whatever form and shipping it off to a customer; rather, those companies are working with the end user to tailor the graphene to the end product. And so, in this sense, the need for standardisation is less stringent.
At the moment, if companies are asked to produce tonnes of graphene then they will be able to do so. But that material is unlikely to work immediately for the intended application. There is thus a need for these companies to work together with the end user to make sure that the graphene is modified and functionalised to fit the given requirement.
Can you tell me a little about the roadmap into society for graphene and related materials and the role of the Graphene Flagship here?
We are now in the fifth year of the Graphene Flagship, meaning that we are mid-way through the initial ten year journey, and we have already seen many products based on graphene enter the market. These are varied. For instance, on a recent skiing trip I and many other people on the slopes were using graphene-based skis. Meanwhile, motorcycle helmets, shoes, bicycle tyres, and all sorts of other things that contain graphene are now commercially available.
It is thus clear that graphene is already making its way through to society, and it is now at a stage where most people are not even aware that a product they are buying contains graphene. That is a marked difference to the landscape just ten years ago, when a product was being marketed and sold on the basis that it contained graphene, rather than because of its function. Now, products are being sold because they are of good quality, not because of the material they contain, and that is as it should be. People should buy the product that is best for them, and if that includes graphene then great; if not, then most consumers won’t really care.
It certainly seems that the Flagship is heading in the right direction. As the Flagship progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the roadmap we devised in 2010 is being implemented almost on time, and that is both quite exciting and also a little surprising, because at the beginning it was just an idea. So yes, we are certainly heading in the right direction.
We are seeing more and more devices emerging and an increasing number of investments in new spin-outs and start-ups. Within the next phase of the Flagship, Core Three, which will run from 2020 to 2023, there will be ten new ‘spearhead projects’ targeting specific applications. For example, one will be on 5G high speed telecommunications, while another will be tailored towards the development of graphene-silicone batteries. These will help develop different products and result in spin-outs. In 2019, we saw several spinouts/start-ups being created – on batteries, on imaging for medical application, on 5G, and many others.
Looking at areas such as spintronics, spin-logic devices will become a focus for the Flagship beyond 2030. However, spintronics also currently exists within the Flagship as a platform. What work is taking place here?
We are indeed working on spintronics as a platform within the Flagship, but there are some applications that will not reach the market before 2024, when the Flagship reaches its tenth year. With spintronics, we are talking about a longer timeframe. However, we already have a start-up company called NanOsc, aiming at commercialising spintronics devices, but, of course, we are talking about a much longer perspective.
Within the Flagship, spin devices have really gone from purely fundamental research, even from pure theory, to experimental work in the laboratory and then to a point where some companies are now actively considering the production of prototype devices.
With Brexit on the horizon, do you foresee this having an impact on the Flagship?
From the point of view of research, Brexit is a terrible idea. That is also true in terms of money, in that the UK gets much more from Europe than it spends (almost double, in fact). Consequently, the UK stands to lose around €1bn overnight once Brexit happens.
There are a few different scenarios which could play out. The deal that Theresa May is negotiating will essentially mean no change in terms of what concerns the Flagship because it will leave us in a similar situation. Clearly, no Brexit means no change. A delay to Brexit, which seems likely, will also, of course, mean no immediate changes. Thus, the only issue for us is a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit, which will mean that the EU money will stop. However, the British government has made it very clear that they will pay the British part of the funding for all on-going projects, and we have already notified them of the Graphene Flagship.
I am confident from what I have heard and seen that the UK will definitely fulfil their promise of providing their part of the funding. The issue, however, is that if there really is a hard Brexit, then while the UK will fund UK research there will be no link with the European element. At the moment, however, it is quite clear that no-one wants to see a hard Brexit, and so we can hope that this will be avoided and thus the impact on the Flagship will be minimal.
Even in the case of hard Brexit, we are quite lucky in the sense that the Flagship’s funding is already defined until April 2023. This means that even if a hard Brexit takes place there is a period of three years in which the UK and Europe can come to an agreement for post-2023 financing. Given that both the Remainers and hardcore Brexiteers have said that research funding and collaboration should remain a priority, I have little doubt that at the end of this three year period we will be able to seamlessly integrate the Flagship. And this is also something that should be applicable for all the other Flagship Projects as well.
Beyond Brexit, what’s next for the Graphene Flagship?
Core Three begins in April 2020, and this is the penultimate phase of the first ten years of the project. Beyond that ten year period, we are hoping that there will be an option to continue.
The main focus for us as we enter the second five year period is the allocation of an increasing amount of funding towards the development of specific applications via the spearhead projects. And these will be led by industry, not by academia. Indeed, industry leadership in these projects was one of the specific requirements in the Call, and we had 89 companies apply.
In Core three we will also have around €105m distributed to work packages, all of which will target higher TRLs, with the exception of the fundamental work package where we hope to be able to discover new materials and find new applications. We also have two other work packages, one dealing with health and safety, and one with bio-applications. Indeed, we are also lunching a €1m Call for health and safety in graphene, the applicant for which has to be a regulatory body, and I am confident that some good projects will emerge from this.
Professor Andrea Ferrari
Science and Technology Officer