The Graphene Story. By Anna Nadolna
Anna Nadolna consolidates questions on research, value creation and tech progress underpinning the graphene phenomenon. ‘The Graphene Story’ is the third of a series showcasing revolutionary concepts and technologies driving disruptive innovation.
Two worlds – art and science – have recently come together and achieved something remarkable. To celebrate the reopening of Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, one of Britain’s most renowned visual artists, Cornelia Parker and the physicist and Nobel laureate, Kostya Novoselov worked together and turned tiny pieces of graphite from William Blake’s, Turner’s and Picasso’s drawings into the graphene meteor shower.
It was Novoselov who set off the graphene sensor into a firework display by breathing into it. There was something poignant in that gesture – the graphene meteor shower set off by the breath of one of the scientists behind the playful pencil & Scotch tape experiment that led to the discovery of the 2-dimensional material that could change the history of computing.
Dubbed ‘the first cultural use of graphene’, this Parker/Novoselov powerful commission made me want to dig deeper into the graphene phenomenon. And there came the ‘The 1 billion-euro Graphene Story’ at the Academic and Industry SIG event covering the intersection of research, academia and funding.
Held on 25th February at Microsoft Research Cambridge offices (yes, they do have pool and foosball tables there) the event featured talks from Jani Kivioja of Nokia Research Centre, Dr Achim Hoffmann of IP Group, James Baker of Manchester National Graphene Institute, Dr Felice Torrisi of Cambridge Graphene Centre and Professor Andrea Ferrari of Cambridge Graphene Centre and University of Cambridge Engineering Department and Nanoscience Centre. They were all joined during the Panel Session by Ian Barrett of AstraZeneca.
The discussions revolved around the potential of graphene-based technology (with references to silicon transistors and semiconductor industry), flexible, wearable and transparent electronics, investments, taking graphene from lab to the factory floor and scalability. It was soon pretty clear that despite the “inherent novelty”, high expectations associated with graphene and the whole media frenzy, the talks would strip the subject from all the sugar-coating and media-fluffiness to bare statement – there’s no hype, just progress.
The statement resonated along with Dr Achim Hoffmann’s words “Pick one that you can serve” referring to the chasm between research and value creation, as he discussed graphene from an early stage investment and business builder perspective.
’It doesn’t take two days, it doesn’t take two weeks and it certainly doesn’t take 200 million euros or 1 billion euro,’ stressed Professor Andrea Ferrari illustrating the rocky road to a fully disruptive technology of another super material – silicon – that required years of trials and “humongous funds”, including military investments.
The interest in graphene dates back to 1940s and recent breakthroughs in understanding the physics of this material (isolating graphene crystals large enough for measurements), demonstrate that we have to be realistic of what it actually takes to create a new technology, standardise it, satisfy regulations and then industrialise and commercialise it.
“Graphene is not a religion,” Professor Ferrari continued, referring to the EU’s 2020 horizon. “And somebody will win the race (…) Do we actually know what the next killer application is? Yes, the real killer application is the one that creates the new technology itself based on the property of the material.”
In times where “success comes to be defined by the amount of money one can generate in the very short term and progress is in turn defined not by making things better, but by rendering them obsolete as rapidly as possible so that the next iteration of phones, cars or operating systems can be sold to a willing market” (Michael Hanlon, The Golden Quarter) – listening to an honest scientific reasoning from engineers and experts in the subject comes as something truly eye-opening.
The graphene story touches on exponential rate of tech progress, deployability, the inadequacy between hype and reality and the constant need to “think outside the box”. I found everything in this story that has ever struck a chord since my University years – the vision, the promise and the risk – the underpinning of real innovation. And I dare not to use the expression ‘wonder material’ again.
About The Author
Anna Nadolna is Events and Marketing Executive at CW
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