It all started with sticky tape
The Graphene Flagship reviews the story of graphene, from the dream and wonder of the very first experiments to impactful products and successful commercial endeavours
Graphene: an ideal material for invisible cat hammocks and space elevators. Or at least, that was what the hype would have led you to believe. A few years ago, the public excitement for graphene was overwhelming. And it made sense. Scientists had discovered something stronger than steel and more conductive than copper, yet flexible, transparent and thousands of times thinner than a human hair.
So, when the Graphene Flagship officially launched in 2013, the bar was understandably set rather high. But thanks to their unshakeable passion and commitment, our researchers managed to exceed expectations. Although making a hammock out of graphene to support the weight of a cat still remains a far-off challenge, today, Europe counts on world-leading graphene technologies enabled by the Graphene Flagship that attract private investments and propel innovation into the future.
Graphene has evolved tremendously since those first few Friday evening experiments with sticky tape. Nowadays, thanks to the Graphene Flagship, we manufacture graphene on a large scale using intricate production methods like chemical vapour deposition or liquid phase exfoliation. Moreover, the additional €20 million in funding granted to the 2D Experimental Pilot Line will guarantee successful knowledge transfer to the semiconductor industry.
The past fifteen years also unveiled some unexpected surprises. As it turns out, graphene itself is its own family of materials. Different technologies yield pristine one-atom-thick carbon sheets, few-layer graphene flakes, or graphene oxide – a product that combines carbon and oxygen atoms. These distinct substances exhibit different properties, opening up a new world of possibilities.
For instance, crystalline graphene excels in electronics and photonics applications, paving the way to new technologies in computing and telecommunications. On the other hand, graphene oxide powers innovative batteries, sensors, conductive inks and much more. Recent discoveries by Graphene Flagship scientists suggest that graphene oxide could even have therapeutic properties. A model study showed that, when injected into specific regions of the brain, graphene oxide silences the neurons responsible for anxious behaviour, soothing the symptoms of stress and worry.
Our scientists even spiced up graphene by introducing some exotic physical properties. When one layer of graphene is twisted at just the right angle, or mixed with certain other materials, graphene suddenly reveals unusual hidden behaviours like superconductivity. This discovery will likely lead to new quantum technologies, including ultra-safe encryption and faster computers.
To infinity and beyond
But what about the space elevator? Very much like the invisible hammock, this turned out to be a futuristic lucubration by eccentric dreamers. Nevertheless, the Graphene Flagship continues to explore the final frontier, pushing technologies for space exploration ever-forward.
In 2017, our scientists embarked in a zero-gravity adventure to test the potential of graphene in different space applications. They experimented with graphene-enabled solar sails: an efficient method to propel spacecraft using only light. Then, embarking on a parabolic flight operated by the European Space Agency, Graphene Flagship researchers studied the benefits of graphene-enabled satellite heat pipes. These devices are paramount to the survival of electronics in space, as temperatures can reach 200 °C when facing the sun. Graphene’s excellent heat-transfer capabilities can improve the efficiency of heat pipes and, consequently, bolster the durability and performance of satellites, probes and spaceships.
The flashpoint of these exploratory endeavours came about in 2019, when graphene finally ventured into outer space. Our experiment – which shared a MASER rocket with three other prototypes – tested the printing of graphene-based inks under zero-gravity conditions. On Earth, graphene inks have found applications in batteries, sensors and gauges, among other things. The Graphene Flagship wondered if we could print these in space, to enable new self-sufficient ecosystems for future space missions.
These advances resulted in several patent applications and garnered the interest of many industry-leading companies. They also inspired further functionalities in aeronautics. Now, companies like AIRBUS and Lufthansa Technik coordinate Graphene Flagship Spearhead Projects to bring the technological advantages of graphene to commercial aircraft. We expect to see these results by 2023.
So far, our researchers have truly shined at delivering on their promises, and we fully expect to see this continue into the future.