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Pencils, ships and Nobel prizes

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Tempo di lettura: 11 mins

What can be simpler than a pencil? What dark secrets are hidden in the traces it leaves behind? Why should we begin to start studying graphite, which is the heart of the pencil? Why should scientists studying the physics of matter waste their time on something so common and ordinary? And yet physics is becoming increasingly interested in pencils. There are those who are using graphite and adhesive tape to try to find new material and those who are trying to understand how to use a pencil to get something that might end up in the display screen of a smart phone. Using your fingers on a tablet display screen will be similar to using a pencil on a sheet of paper.

The material we are talking about is called graphene and at the end of January the European Union decided to invest one billion Euro in the Graphene flagship project, which brings together 126 academic and industrial research groups from 17 European countries. The EU is betting on the thinnest material in the world. The press release states that the EU wants to bring graphene, "from academic laboratories to society, revolutionize many industries and create economic growth and new jobs in Europe. "

The perspective in which the European Union has launched its research on graphene is summed up by Tapani Ryhänen, director of one of the laboratories of the Nokia Research Center in Cambridge, which is owned by the colossal Finnish company that exports mobile phones all around the world and is part of the Graphene flagship project: “We now have everything we need to to succeed at a world level.”

The vice president of the European Union, Neelie Kroes, wrote on her blog: “In the future we may have a “Graphene Valley”, in place of the Silicon Valley: and it may very well be here in Europe.”

Can this record braking material make Europe a region in the world that has the highest intensity of research and development? Perhaps graphene can give us the answer to this question.

Graphene: simplicity and marvel

The trace left behind by a pencil is the closest thing to graphene that we can find, without having to resort to physicists.

Graphene is an extremely thin sheet - actually the thinnest there is - of carbon atoms: its thickness is that of a single atom. It is a layer of graphite. As a matter of fact, one of the methods used to get graphene starts right from pencils.

On Internet you can find kits that provide what is needed to make graphene: the main tools are graphite and scotch tape. Get a graphite cube and apply a strip of scotch tape from one part of the cube to the other. By pulling the two ends of the adhesive tape you get two smaller pieces of graphite. After repeating this process roughly twenty times you end up with something that is very similar to graphene.

Obviously researchers of the Graphene flagship project do not use adhesive tape and pencils to make graphene. However, this processing technique can give you an idea of how simple this this material is, despite its unique features. “Graphene is an incredible material for a credible future”, states Giovanni Bruno, one of the Italian flagship members. He is a researcher. A chemist who works for the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (Cnr). In his laboratory in Bari he works with graphene every day. “It's amazing to think that a molecule can be manipulated by tweezers.” In fact, one of the features that makes the graphene material unique is the fact that it is “an enormous molecule”: a sheet consisting of a variable number of carbon atoms form a single molecule.

“It is a material that has unique properties, it is economic and, if used promptly, it would enable to relaunch Italy's technical possibilities for producing and developing devices for ICT (Information and Communications Technology).” This is how graphene is described by Davide Vitali, a matter physicist at the University of Camerino. He is an associated professor and member of the Graphene flagship project. He sees the project as being “a unique opportunity to relaunch and reaffirm Europe's leadership, not only scientific but also technological, over Asiatic countries and the USA.”

The potentialities for Europe in using graphene are hidden in its records.

Record-breaking material

Graphene is the thinnest material in the world. It is bi-dimensional. It's like a sheet of paper that is so thin that it can be considered void. It is the most realistic representation of what in geometry is called “plane”. It's like the triangles that filled our maths notebooks when we used to go to school. Today we can say that the lines we drew to make make geometric figures, could have been represented even outside of the notebook pages.

On top of this, graphene has many more qualities which make it the material of records. For example, it is 100% impermeable: helium is the smallest atom existing and even this can't penetrate a sheet of graphene. Despite its thinness, it is far more resistant than steel. Furthermore, it is extremely ductile: it is the most elastic and bendable material known to mankind. Finally, it has the highest thermal conductibility and it has the highest density of sustained electricity.

We can add another record to this “magic carpet”. One of the first physicists to study it,   Andre Geim, holds another record: he is the only person to have won the Nobel prize in 2010 and the Ig Nobel prize in 2000, which was created to celebrate the unusual. Or, as is stated on his web site, “The Ig Nobel prize honors conquests which initially make people laugh but then they make them think.” The reasons for winning the prize were various: the Nobel was awarded because of his “revolutionary” research on graphene, along with Konstantin Novoselov, whereas the Ig Nobel was awarded to him and the British physicist and mathematician Michael Berry, for their flying frog. Geim and Berry were doing research on magnetic levitation.

Aside from the frogs, Andre Geim's career underwent a qualitative leap roughly ten years ago, thanks to the “enormous molecule."

Graphene's origins (which are somewhat recent)

Graphene appeared for the first time in a scientific magazine in 2004, when the first study was published on Science. The scientific document's two main authors were the Nobel prize winners Andre Geim e Konstantin Novoselov. Their story begins at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, in the city of Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.

Professor Geim is the supervisor of the student Novoselov, who was at the time working on his PhD. When his mentor left for the prestigious University of Manchester, Novoselov followed him without delay. Geim's and his pupil Novoselov's careers  were launched in the UK: they are now both professors at the University of Manchester.
The two physicists have another couple of things in common: they were born in Russia and studied at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. However, Geim is a naturalized citizen of the Netherlands and Novoselov became a British citizen. The famous Russian school of physicists took a harsh blow when it lost these two scientists.

Looking at things in a wider perspective, going from Russia to Europe, Geim and Novoselov's discovery of graphene and their Nobel prize have given their continent an extraordinary opportunity. According to the physicist Luca Ottaviano, a researcher at the university of L’Aquila and member of the Graphene flagship project, “research on graphene is global and characterized by rapid and fierce competition. For example, South Korea (where Samsung, which exports cellphones and other electronic devices worldwide, has its headquarters) is already in a leading position in using this material for their flat panel display screens. The Graphene flagship project is Europe's occasion to take advantage, which is often not the case, of a European scientific discovery which could bring wealth and prosperity to Europe as opposed to other parts of the world.”

The Graphene flagship project 

“Graphene, the future in the trace of a pencil”: this is the central idea in the first presentation of the Graphene flagship project. The Director, Jari Kinaret (here is an interview with him), of the Chalmers, the Goteborg Technology University in Sweden, described the Fet flagship in the pilot conference, which was held at the beginning of July 2012. Six projects were presented. Two of these received financing from the EU because they were considered as “Future and emerging technology” (Fet). Many possibilities for development in the "new generation technologies" were identified in the Graphene flagship and Human Brain project.

Graphene is a material that can be used in many sectors. “Its use is potentially universal as are other disruptive materials (material whose discovery has revolutionized society in many ways) such as plastic or silicon.” according to Luca Ottaviano.
The Flagship program's intention is to concentrate only on some of graphene's applications, such as communication and the use of energy and sensors technology. “We don't want to compete with Korea (Samsung) on graphene display units.” states Kinaret the Flagship director.

The consortium of the main players who form part of the Graphene flagship project is made up of Chalmers - the Swiss University of Technology - which is coordinating the project, the University of Manchester, the University of Lancaster, the Cambridge University, the Amo Gmbh - a German company that has only 40 employees, specialized in applied research and nanotechnology development - the Catalan Institute for nanotechnology, the Finnish company Nokia, the European foundation for Science and Italy's Cnr, the National Council of of Research.

Giuliano Giambastiani, who is a researcher at the Florence Institute of Chemistry of Organometallic compounds, sees the Graphene flagship project as an opportunity to relaunch our country: “The Flagship program can no doubt reinforce our presence, as Italian researchers in Europe and internationally by opening new opportunities (even fundings) for our Italian research.”

From another point of view, the physicist Luca Valentini - a university researcher at the Engineering Faculty in Perugia - highlights the benefits the flagship project can bring to each scientist who is part of the program. “It can promote the mobility of researchers. To be able to spend time abroad and collaborate with other researchers is a fundamental point: and this goes for research in general. Such a large budget (a billion Euros made available by the European Union) will enable to establish a research system, create specialized centers and motivate nanotechnology research throughout Europe.”

In summary, the Graphene flagship project will bring advantages to the research world at all levels. At a world-wide level, it will establish Europe's scientific leadership. At a national level it can help Italian researchers to give luster back to our country where research funds are scarce. Each single scientist as well can, as a result of the flagship project, improve his/her professional preparation, thanks to being in contact with the work of other researchers.

Aside from the research world, we must consider the fact that the Flagship project will also help industrial development. In order to favor this aspect, the Flagship management team is supported by a Strategic Advisory Council chaired by the Nobel prize winner Andre Geim. The members of this group come from the academic and industrial world. There are industry representatives from Nokia and Airbus.

A bridge between research and industry

The Graphene flagship project therefore links numerous European research groups that study graphene's properties and companies that are interested in their use, such as those already mentioned like Nokia and the French-Italian company STMicroelectronics, which produces electronic components. As a matter of fact, one of the project's objectives is to bring together research institutes and companies on the same team.
European research, prior to the creation of the Graphene flagship project, was lacking in creating links with industries that can take advantage of what is being created in the laboratories.

Tapani Ryhänen, of the Nokia Research Center in Cambridge, firmly believes in the potential of the flagship project: “We are convinced that the new bi-dimensional material will have an impact on the productive process of industries in many ways by creating opportunities for new products, services and economic growth.”

Filippo Giannazzo has been studying graphene for more than six years at the Microelectronic and Microsystems Institute (Imm) at the National Research Council (Cnr) in Catania. “Our institute represents, in the Italian panorama, a proven and virtuous model of how basic research on new materials for electronics can have an important industrial and economic impact, through a synergistic collaboration with a major company like STMicrolelectronics. Therefore, with reference to the flagship project, our research group is the ideal candidate as far as contributing experience is concerned when it comes to transferring graphene from «laboratory material» to« industrial material».”

Not just patents

“Europe held and still holds - continues Giannazzo - a leading role in basic research on graphene and new bi-dimensional material made from graphene or similar material. However it's far behind Asia (Corea, Singapore, Japan,...) and the United States with regard to studies designed for industrial use. This is also linked to the structural problem of the European research system, which is mainly carried out by the academic and industrial world,” he says referring to patents. Samsung (video) has already filed more than 400 patents relevant to the use of graphene for flat panel screens - flat is an extremely appropriate definition, when talking about graphene.

Actually, other companies are beginning to place products made of graphene on the market. The multinational company Head, which produces sport equipment, has already produced a tennis racket made with graphene: the HEAD YouTek™ Graphene™ Speed. In Italy, the Graphos company has developed various graphene-based products, among which ink. The Graphos G-Ink is an additive that can be put into a common inkjet printer cartridge. Since graphene is an excellent electric conductor, the Graphos G-Ink is made of this material (video).

Pencils on Columbus's ships

The spirit in which the European Union has financed the Graphene flagship project can be seen by the enthusiasm of the researchers who work with graphene on a daily basis throughout Europe. Luca Ottaviano states: “I feel as though I'm part of Columbus's group in 1492. Finally we're off. The flagship, the Santa Maria will lead us to discover new and unexpected worlds.”

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