Building a graphene-based future for Europe
Graphene is the strongest, most impermeable and conductive material known to man. Graphene sheets are just one atom thick, but 200 times stronger than steel. The European Union is investing heavily in the exploitation of graphene's unique properties through a number of research initiatives such as the SEMANTICS project running at Trinity College Dublin.
It is no surprise that graphene, a substance with better electrical and thermal conductivity, mechanical strength and optical purity than any other, is being heralded as the ‘wonder material’ of the 21stcentury, as plastics were in the 20thcentury.
Graphene could be used to create ultra-fast electronic transistors, foldable computer displays and light-emitting diodes. It could increase and improve the efficiency of batteries and solar cells, help strengthen aircraft wings and even revolutionise tissue engineering and drug delivery in the health sector.
It is this huge potential which has convinced the European Commission to commit €1 billion to the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Graphene Flagship project, the largest-ever research initiative funded in the history of the EU. It has a guaranteed €54 million in funding for the first two years with much more expected over the next decade.
Sustained funding for the full duration of the Graphene Flagship project comes from the EU's Research Framework Programmes, principally from Horizon 2020 (2014-2020).
The aim of the Graphene Flagship project, likened in scale to NASA’s mission to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, or the Human Genome project in the 1990s, is to take graphene and related two-dimensional materials such as silicene (a single layer of silicon atoms) from a state of raw potential to a point where they can revolutionise multiple industries and create economic growth and new jobs in Europe.
The research effort will cover the entire value chain, from materials production to components and system integration. It will help to develop the strong position Europe already has in the field and provide an opportunity for European initiatives to lead in global efforts to fully exploit graphene’s miraculous properties.
Under the EU plan, 126 academics and industry groups from 17 countries will work on 15 individual but connected projects.
Feeding industry’s hunger for graphene
But this is not the only support being provided by the EU for research into the phenomenal potential of graphene. The SEMANTICS research project, led by Professor Jonathan Coleman at Trinity College Dublin, is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and has already achieved some promising results.
The ERC does not assign funding to particular challenges or objectives, but selects the best scientists with the best ideas on the sole criterion of excellence. By providing complementary types of funding, both to individual scientists to work on their own ideas, and to large-scale consortia to coordinate top-down programmes, the EU is helping to progress towards a better knowledge and exploitation of graphene.
“It is no overestimation to state that graphene is one of the most exciting materials of our lifetime,” Prof. Coleman says. “It has the potential to provide answers to the questions that have so far eluded us. Technology, energy and aviation companies worldwide are racing to discover the full potential of graphene. Our research will be an important element in helping to realise that potential.”
With the help of European Research Council (ERC) Starting and Proof of Concept Grants, Prof. Coleman and his team are researching methods for obtaining single-atom layers of graphene and other layered compounds through exfoliation (peeling off) from the multilayers, followed by deposition on a range of surfaces to prepare films displaying specific behaviour.
“We’re working towards making graphene and other single-atom layers available on an economically viable industrial scale, and making it cheaply,” Prof. Coleman continues.
“At CRANN, we are developing nanosheets of graphene and other single-atom materials which can be made in very large quantities,” he adds. “When you put these sheets in plastic, for example, you make the plastic stronger. Not only that – you can massively increase its electrical properties, you can improve its thermal properties and you can make it less permeable to gases. The applications for industry could be endless.”
Prof. Coleman admits that scientists are regularly taken aback by the potential of graphene. “We are continually amazed at what graphene and other single-atom layers can do,” he reveals. “Recently it has been discovered that, when added to glue, graphene can make it more adhesive. Who would have thought that? It’s becoming clear that graphene just makes things a whole lot better,” he concludes.
So far, the project has developed a practical method for producing two-dimensional nanosheets in large quantities. Crucially, these nanosheets are already being used for a range of applications, including the production of reinforced plastics and metals, building super-capacitors and batteries which store energy, making cheap light detectors, and enabling ultra-sensitive position and motion sensors. As the number of application grows, increased demand for these materials is anticipated. In response, the SEMANTICS team has scaled up the production process and is now producing 2D nanosheets at a rate more than 1000 times faster than was possible just a year ago.