The rise of Graphene Flagship scientists
Four of our inspirational investigators were among the first to join the Graphene Flagship: Xinliang Feng, Mar García- Hernández, Vincenzo Palermo and Amaia Zurutuza. They joined the project with bright ideas, a keen sense of enthusiasm and the unwavering will to succeed.
About ten years ago, researchers across Europe started to mobilise. The European Commission had just announced a visionary idea: heavily funded, long-term projects to catapult innovative technologies out from the lab and onto the market. Graphene, recently awarded the Nobel prize in Physics, was an ideal candidate.
Four of our inspirational investigators were among the first to join this ambitious endeavour: Xinliang Feng, Mar García- Hernández, Vincenzo Palermo and Amaia Zurutuza. They joined the project with bright ideas, a keen sense of enthusiasm and the unwavering will to succeed. Now, after a decade of proud research and cutting-edge results, their careers have all flourished aboard the Graphene Flagship, and they are pleased to tell their story.
An ambitious journey begins
Zurutuza was working in Scotland, as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, when a job advert caught her attention. Near her hometown in the Basque Country, a brand-new scientific start-up company needed bright new minds to develop reliable, reproducible methods to manufacture a new material: graphene.
“I applied for the role of Scientific Director, even though my background came from a totally different field,” she explains. And it was the right choice. Soon after that interview, Zurutuza became the Chief Scientific Officer of Graphenea – one of the founding members of the Graphene Flagship consortium. “And the rest is history,” she adds.
Palermo and Feng entered the world of graphene fascinated by its possible applications in chemistry. “Graphene has an unusual shape: a purely two-dimensional sheet of carbon,” explains Palermo. “It has tremendous potential to carry out chemical reactions,” he says. This singular structure enables the synthesis of new layered materials that, combined like ingredients in a sandwich, yield mixtures with weird and wonderful flavours and properties.
A new era for discovery
Although graphene was traditionally exfoliated – peeled coat after coat – from graphite, Feng envisioned a bottom-up approach instead, like a chemical jigsaw. Using advanced synthetic methods, Feng and his team merged polycyclic aromatics into monoatomic layers of carbon. “These systems are unattainable just using physical methods,” says Feng. “Plus, we can chemically modify graphene to tailor its functional groups, yielding designs with unique shapes and lengths,” he continues.
“Graphene is like the Swiss army knife of materials,” says García-Hernández, who explains that graphene is a truly multi-faceted material with a huge array of useful applications. “Its true charm lies in its unrivalled combination of different properties,” she adds. But despite the many advances pioneered by the Graphene Flagship, García-Hernández believes that the real breakthroughs are still around the corner.
Graphene’s ultra-thin structure is extremely sensitive to any changes in its surroundings, from small molecules to shining beams of light. This gives graphene tremendous potential in sensing applications. “These advantages will revolutionise optoelectronics and telecommunications,” García-Hernández says. Graphene will empower technological breakthroughs in terms of energy efficiency, the optimisation of resources and sustainability. “Miniaturising means saving,” she explains. And she’s right – what could be smaller than transparent pieces of one-atom-thin carbon layers?
Further down the line, these capabilities will transform biomedical technologies, too. “We could also make responsive actuators using graphene. These would be fast and highly responsive, enabling doctors to rapidly respond to complications,” says García-Hernández.
“The immense importance of biosensors became evident during the pandemic,” adds Zurutuza. Beyond COVID-19, the possibilities are endless – when properly functionalised, graphene detects bacteria, viruses and even cancer. A remarkable example of this comes from Graphene Flagship spin-offs INBRAIN Neuroelectronics and Grapheal, which both attracted considerable private investments in 2021.
INBRAIN develops graphene-enabled neural interfaces that are more sensitive but less invasive than current technologies. Grapheal responded to the coronavirus by refocusing their research pipeline from wound monitoring to COVID testing, developing new and accurate point-of-care tests for SARS-CoV-2. Both companies are progressing towards clinical studies, and their technologies could hit the market soon.
Just like the blossoming careers of our pioneering scientists, their graphene-based technologies were also enabled by the unique ecosystem fostered by the Graphene Flagship.
And this goes beyond just funding: the true secret to successful research is supporting fruitful and worthwhile collaborations between researchers across different countries, institutions and disciplines. “My career grew alongside the project,” says Feng. “We all learnt so much about graphene and related materials, from physics and fundamentals to applications and innovations,” he adds.
It is thanks to the Graphene Flagship that many graphene-enabled products are already commercially available. “Their impact on our everyday life is still limited, but technological revolutions take time,” explains Palermo. Nevertheless, he is certain that graphene will transform the European innovation landscape. “Materials improve our lives and our planet,” he adds.
Mixing and matching layered materials like graphene is a way to create completely new cutting-edge composites. For instance, García-Hernández studies methods to grow graphene on silicon, glass, sapphire, and even paper. There is a world of opportunities to explore ahead of us.
Advice for the new generation
These pioneers are now established, recognised graphene experts across Europe. We asked them what advice they would give to our young and early career scientists. Is there a secret to personal scientific success?
Together, they agreed that the most important qualities are curiosity, passion and perseverance. “It’s great to start your career being curious about something new,” explains Feng. T
hen comes the fight for funding. Genius is mostly hard work, but proposals require dedication and determination. Keeping your dreams alive takes persistence, but it pays off. “Curiosity and passion drive scientific discovery,” says García-Hernández. “The very story of graphene’s discovery is the perfect example,” she adds. For all four of these pioneering scientists, the Graphene Flagship has been a fantastic experience.
Overall, ‘pursue your ambitions’ is the take-home message. And Zurutuza makes a very convincing argument: “just go for it!”