£855m award from EU for graphene research

28 January 2013
By Sofia Mitra-Thakur
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NO2 molecule on graphene surface (credit University of Manchester)

NO2 molecule on graphene surface (credit University of Manchester)

A "wonder material" first developed at the University of Manchester shared in the largest financial prize ever awarded for research excellence.

An £855 million (one billion euro) European Union award has been announced to fund 10 years' more research work to explore and exploit the unique properties of graphene, called "a revolutionary carbon-based material" by the European Commission.

Last week E&T reported that the University of Cambridge plan to launch a graphene research centre.

A second major research programme known as the Human Brain Project also received a one billion euro award to help create the world's largest experimental centre for developing the most detailed model of the brain, with a view to creating personalised neurological treatments to extend the lives of millions.

Up to half of the total funding for both initiatives will come from the Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagships research programme, the rest from a combination of private and industry backers, universities and government funds.

But the Commission, aware of concern about big EU spending schemes in an economic downturn, insisted that "there will be careful monitoring during the lifetime of the projects so that the flagships continue to be an efficient use of taxpayers' money".

A statement continued: "This is about investing in Europe's future. Tackling grand challenges necessitates, in certain cases, large-scale projects which require large-scale investment.

"The European Commission is supporting ambitious and risky projects which promise a big return in the long-term.

"Supporting these projects will help Europe maintain its position as a global player, particularly in priority areas which could create jobs and growth."

The Commission statement described "graphene" as "an extraordinary combination of physical and chemical properties: it is the thinnest material, it conducts electricity much better than copper, it is 100-300 times stronger than steel and it has unique optical properties.

"The substance is set to become the wonder material of the 21st century, as plastics were to the 20th century, including by replacing silicon in information and communications technology products."

Hundreds of research groups are now involved in both programmes: work on graphene, although originating in the UK in 2004, is now led by Sweden and includes more than 170 academic and industrial research groups in 17 European countries.

The UK authorities have been criticised for lagging behind in the drive to benefit from its potential.

Graphene was first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004 by Professors Andre Geim, 54, and Kostya Novoselov, 38, who won the 2010 Nobel prize for Physics for "groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene".

Two years earlier the pair had been awarded the Europhysics Prize for "discovering and isolating a single free-standing atomic layer of carbon (graphene) and elucidating its remarkable electronic properties".

Accepting that award in 2008, Geim said: "In 10 years' time, I believe the word graphene will be as widely known to the public as silicon."

The Graphene Flagship will coordinate 126 academic and industrial research groups in 17 European countries with an initial 30-month-budget of 54 million euros.

Key applications include fast electronic and optical devices, flexible electronics, functional lightweight components and advanced batteries. 

Examples of new products enabled by graphene technologies include fast, flexible and strong consumer electronics such as electronic paper and bendable personal communication devices, and lighter and more energy efficient airplanes.

In the longer term, graphene is expected to give rise to new computational paradigms and revolutionary medical applications such as artificial retinas.  

The flagship programme will be coordinated by Chalmers University of Technology based in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The director, Professor Jari Kinaret, will lead the research activities.

The management team is supported by a Strategic Advisory Council that includes the European Nobel Laureates Professor Andre Geim (chairman), Albert Fert, Klaus von Klitzing and Professor Kostya Novoselov, industrial representatives from Nokia and Airbus, and two representatives of the global graphene research community.

Professor Novoselov said: “The Graphene Flagship funding is designed to strengthen European research in the area of novel materials and to build bridges between the best European scientists and industrialists. 

"The hope is that the links that are to be developed within this project between the universities and the commercial companies will lead to many new innovations beyond the Flagship.”

“The University of Manchester has been at the forefront of graphene research for many years, thanks to the efforts of such brilliant scientists as Andre Geim, Irina Grigorieva, Sasha Grigorenko, Ian Kinloch and many others.

“However, the area of graphene and other 2D crystals has grown and widened dramatically, so we are happy to see hundreds of other university and industrial groups in Europe involved in this research.

"They bring unrivalled expertise to the story. It is great to see that the research which started and continues at The University of Manchester is now spreading across Europe.”

The Human Brain Project, led by Switzerland, involves 87 organisations in 23 countries.

It is an ambitious plan to aggregate everything known about the human brain and to construct in supercomputer-based models and simulations of the brain.

The models offer the prospect of a new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and of completely new computing and robotic technologies.

This could help speed up the diagnosis of brain diseases such as depression, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's and possibly develop new treatments.

The project also aims to use the brain's capacity to process signals from trillions of synapses - neural connections - as a model to develop computers which can do more with less energy consumption.

The EPSRC-funded SpiNNaker project, hosted at the University of Manchester in collaboration with the universities of Southampton, Cambridge and Sheffield, has been developing a machine ultimately to incorporate a million UK-designed ARM processor cores with the primary objective of supporting large-scale computer models of parts of the brain.

Professor Steve Furber said: "Understanding how the brain processes information remains as one of the great frontiers of science.

“Over the last decade we have been developing SpiNNaker to contribute to this great scientific quest, and the Human Brain Project creates a wonderful opportunity to work with experts across Europe and beyond to extract the maximum value from this investment, as well as to create an even more powerful successor to SpiNNaker."

An EU spokesman said details of matching national funding were still to be agreed, although the UK has already invested £60 million in the graphene research, alongside Sweden and Denmark.

"Both these projects are shared investments across Europe," a Commission official said.

EU digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes urged governments to agree an "ambitious" research budget soon.

She said: "Europe's position as a knowledge superpower depends on thinking the unthinkable and exploiting the best ideas.

"This multi-billion competition rewards home-grown scientific breakthroughs and shows that when we are ambitious we can develop the best research in Europe.

"To keep Europe competitive, to keep Europe as the home of scientific excellence, EU governments must agree an ambitious budget in the coming weeks."

She emphasised: "This award is not an Oscar - it is money to continue the work."

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: "Having such cutting-edge projects supported by the European Commission is a ringing endorsement of the UK's world-class research base and its potential for long-term growth.

"These excellent collaborations will bring together leading scientists and industry partners. They will build on government investment in graphene and high-performance computing, both areas where the UK can gain a competitive advantage."

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