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Technology Act. 21 Aug 2017

The Spanish connection with graphene, the material that will change everything

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Graphene is that science fiction stuff which arises the interest of researchers all around the world. And some Spaniards occupy a very prominent place.

G-R-A-P-H-E-N-E. It’s not a word only for scientists; it’s the name of the material that will change everything. Nothing in electronics, computers, mobile phones, biomedicine or the automotive industry will be the same in the not too distant future. Lightweight wireless devices (real wearables) with a long lasting battery are just some of the applications on the horizon of industrial production. Graphene is that science fiction stuff which arises the interest of researchers all around the world. And some Spaniards occupy a very prominent place.

The discovery of this material dates back to 2004, in one of the research teams at the University of Manchester. Physicist Andre Geim asked one of his PhD students, Konstantin Novoselov, to research on graphite, but in a special way. To study this material, scientists polish the surface by removing the outer layers. That residual material that in 2004 ended in the trash was the beginning for Geim and Novoselov of an exciting story, worthy of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. Some of those discarded graphite layers eventually ended up being crystalline monolayers, what we currently know as graphene, a sheet of carbon just one atom thick.

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The first connection of graphene with Spain came from the hand of Francisco Guinea, CSIC researcher at the Institute of Materials Science of Madrid, which in 2005 was at Boston University. He and two of his collaborators, Antonio Castro Neto and Nuno Peres, reviewed the research of Geim and Novoselov and realized the importance of what today is a milestone in the history of science. Graphene is not a normal material, its electrons behave in a different way and for that reason they have physical qualities that make it different with respect to other metals.

Its role can be decisive for the technology, optical or automotive industry. That’s why it generates so much interest among researchers and venture capital, in the hope that graphene becomes a business of billions of dollars in the near future. But to reach that goal, it is necessary to develop real applications.

BBVA Foundation supports one of the Spanish leading projects on graphene

Today there are many hypotheses and very few certainties regarding the commercial chances of graphene. Noel Rodríguez, researcher of the University of Granada, leads a team that has become one of the Spanish references on this material. In fact, BBVA Foundation wanted to support his work with its latest scholarships program.

For Rodríguez, an expert in the use of graphene in electronics, it is unlikely that this material will serve in the future development of processors. “Silicon is a more established technology; I don’t think that graphene will be able to replace it in the field of integrated circuitry,” says the scientist of the University of Granada. For Rodríguez, this material has a lot more sense in the development of innovations regarding the transmission of electricity, for example in the field of the famous wearables for biomedicine (something like a patch that can be placed on the skin and measure the heart rate and monitor the overall health of a patient). It can also be used for creating supercapacitors which work as mobile batteries with greater autonomy and more resistance to wear by load.

All the effort of researchers in the field of graphene is focused on turning theory into reality. Today, all developments are just prototypes, or not even that.  Rodríguez and his team work to optimize these models, in order to improve the performance of existing technology and at a more affordable price.

Looking for a real application in a laboratory of Granada

Rodriguez follows closely the footsteps of Guinea, the Spaniard spearhead on this material. He’s been working for some time in trying to obtain a real application for graphene, something which would end up, as he says, “with an ad on TV for a product that everyone wants to have.”

“It’s true that there’s a lot of talking about many applications, such as bulletproof vests or ultra-resistant car chassis, but the truth is that they are still not an industrial reality,” says Rodríguez. “Graphene is a monatomic material, so if we put together several layers to construct products, it will stop being graphene and become graphite, a material with completely different properties”, he concludes.

His team is currently working to obtain real applications of this material in untapped niches, “with the goal of creating a possible change of industrial exploitation in Spanish soil”. These Spanish researchers already have several prototypes, but they first need to optimize them and make sure “they always work smoothly.” For example, they are working with a laser reduction of graphene oxide in order to turn it into graphene. “If we obtain a real application of this material, we would be able to create jobs in the future”, says Rodríguez.

A business model for Spain?

The EU is promoting the research of graphene within the Horizon 2020 program for scientific research. In 2013, Brussels awarded two grants of 1,000 million euros to two projects: Graphene, dedicated to graphene, and another one regarding the human brain. Francisco Guinea is the current coordinator for Spain of the European project on graphene, a research that is growing steadily and where many hopes have been placed.

As an alternative to this research and development process there are teams like the one leaded by Rodríguez, who dreams of creating and promoting products that can be sold in the street: “It’s great news that authorities are committed with research as a form of business development.”

“Graphene can be the seed of a new economic model for Spain, or at least the beginning of something,” says Rodriguez. “All we need is funding to retain people and empower young scientists, well trained and with enthusiasm, to follow a career as researchers,” he says hopefully. In the end, the study of graphene is a global race to create an industry, jobs in Spanish soil, and generate added value to society.

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