Meet our scientist Vincenzo Palermo
In this interview, Palermo shares his views on research, innovation and collaboration, and speculates on where the next successes of graphene and related materials will come from.
Vincenzo Palermo is one of the nine scientists who wrote the initial proposal of the Graphene Flagship. A few years later, he became the project’s Vice-Director, leading our project into a new phase of innovative solutions, commercial applications and technological revolutions. Recently, he decided to step down to tackle another challenge: becoming the new Director at Graphene Flagship partner the Institute for Organic Synthesis and Photoreactivity, a centre of the Italian National Research Council (CNR).
Many congratulations on your new role! What are your ambitions as the new Director of ISOF-CNR?
Being the director of ISOF-CNR is a great honour, but also a huge responsibility. Our institute is active in different fields of research, especially developing new materials for biomedical applications, aerospace and the protection of the environment. With over 120 people including researchers, postdocs and students, a budget of several million euros per year and over 7000m2 of laboratories, we have the resources to pursue these different research lines. I had to greatly expand my scientific interests to lead this team of researchers. Before this, I was mostly focused on graphene and nanocomposites.
Hopefully, ISOF-CNR will keep on developing innovative materials to improve our life and our planet. To this aim, I am in constant conversation with all the researchers at our centre, to get new ideas from their work and find the best ways to support them. As a scientist, you really never stop learning!
This new position is far from where you started studying science. Why did you pursue this career?
Originally, I did not plan to pursue this career. When I came into ISOF-CNR for the first time, as an undergraduate student, I never imagined I would eventually become the Director.
Becoming a scientist in Italy is tough as, unfortunately, the country has one of the lowest expenditures on R&D, and the fewest researchers per capita in Europe. This is one of the reasons many of us work abroad. Back when I was studying, the chances of getting a research job seemed too slim to me, the timing too long and the salary uncertain, so I went to work in the industrial sector for some time. But I missed research and science, so I decided to come back and push on, whatever it would take.
When did you first encounter graphene, and why did this material catch your attention?
It’s a story that I remember very well, as it was true serendipity. It was back in 2008, and I was attending E-MRS, a huge conference with over twenty parallel sessions. In such events, it is impossible to follow all the talks. There, my colleague and friend Klaus Mullen (former Director of the Max Plank Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany) mentioned an interesting talk from a Russian scientist about a material that was similar to the polyaromatic hydrocarbons we were working with at the time. This piqued my interest, so I decided to attend the talk.
It turns out this was Andre Geim, one of the two 2010 Nobel Laureates in Physics for their ground-breaking experiments in graphene. Most of his talk was about his studies on the physics and properties of graphene. However, what impressed me most – as a chemist – was the unusual shape of this new material, a pure two-dimensional sheet of carbon. This had a tremendous potential to carry out chemical reactions! Back home, I decided to carry out some experiments and studies with some layered materials that were processable in solution. The first meaningful results came in early 2009, just one year after that we published our first paper on this topic, in a very prestigious scientific journal.
What is your favourite property of graphene (and related layered materials)?
More than a specific property, what I like most is their unique shape – a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms. This structure allows us to build layered composite materials – or heterostructures – that had never been created before. It’s similar to what happened over a century ago, with the first studies of German chemist Hermann Staudinger on polymers. Even there, plastic revolution was not triggered by a specific property of the polymers, but by the possibility to assemble them in spaghetti-like materials that seemed impossible before.
What application of graphene will become absolutely essential in future technologies?
This is a one-billion-dollar question. Citing another Nobel Laureate in Physics, Danish scientist Niels Bohr, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future!”. If I really have to pick one of the many applications of graphene, I would probably select water purification, because pure water will definitely get scarcer and more precious in the future, both in rich and poor countries.
When did you first learn about the Graphene Flagship? Could you please describe how this project has influenced and accelerated your career?
I think it was November 2010, when I was chairing a meeting of GOSPEL, the first project on graphene that I ever coordinated, launched by the European Science Foundation. There, a Finnish professor introduced himself, asking me to join eight other partners to write a proposal on a new type of very ambitious EU project, never heard of or attempted before. This professor was Jari Kinaret, who eventually became the Director of the Graphene Flagship; we went on to work together for eleven years, and this of course had a very strong influence on my career.
Now the Graphene Flagship supports industry-led spearhead projects to boost TRL and foster market penetration. What is your involvement in these?
I am the deputy leader of the Graphene Flagship Spearhead Project G+BOARD, led by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). This industry-led project looks at the automotive applications of graphene. Furthermore, here at ISOF-CNR we are deeply involved in the Graphene Flagship Spearhead Projects GRAPHIL, on water purification, and GICE, on new materials aeronautics.
Until recently, I was based at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, where I held both a research position and my role as Graphene Flagship Vice-Director. I still keep some collaborations with my colleagues up there, which enable me to contribute to the Graphene Flagship Spearhead Project CIRCUITBREAKERS, led by ABB.
How do you expect graphene will change the technological landscape?
Graphene and related materials will allow us to build heterostructures and composites that are completely new to mankind. Our ability to build such materials is still limited, both in nanoscale control and upscaling possibilities (as well as cost). However, I’m sure that such materials will change the technological landscape. As an example, I like to think of materials known as two dimensional anisotropic structures – which are clear winners in applications like coatings or filters.
What applications of graphene do you see reaching the market first?
Graphene applications have been on the market for a while! Their impact in everyday life is real. We know very well from history that technological revolutions take time, but – thanks to the Graphene Flagship – there is a steady growth in both graphene applications and number of commercial products.
What advice would you give to our Graphene Flagship early-career scientists?
Never trust any scientific result reported in just a single paper, no matter how amazing it seems. Due to the pressure to publish and get funding, science is flooded with articles that are difficult to reproduce. Before deciding to invest time, or your PhD, on any topic, think carefully and check different sources. I learned this the hard way, from a colleague who spent her PhD working on cold fusion.