Eco Innovation

The Graphene Flagship concludes research findings

27th March 2024
Sheryl Miles

Concluding Europe's largest ever research initiative to date, the Graphene Flagship officially wrapped up at the end of last year and has left an indelible mark on material science and research innovation.

Launched in 2013 with a budget of €1 billion, the initiative formed to research and harness the unique properties of graphene, a material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern – which is the most energetically favourable arrangement for maximising stability. This effort aimed to fuel economic growth, create new jobs, and open new opportunities across Europe.

Objectives and achievements

The Graphene Flagship sought to transition graphene from the confines of research laboratories to market-ready applications, creating a collaborative environment that united over 150 academic and industrial research teams from 23 countries.

The impact of the initiative has been profound, generating almost 5,000 scientific publications, more than 80 patents, and the creation of 17 spin-offs that have collectively raised over €130 million in venture capital.

Empa researchers, integral to the Flagship, contributed significantly, especially in the Health and Environment work package. Their comprehensive review in the ACS Nano journal, co-authored by molecular biologist Peter Wick among others, presents a clear narrative on the safety and environmental sustainability of graphene and related materials. In the analysis, concerns over acute cell-damaging effects of graphene were dispelled, however, it did point out that while stress reactions in lung cells were observed, the tissue exhibited quick recovery, with no serious long-term impacts noted.

The Flagship has done more than just advanced our understanding and application of graphene, it has also contributed to the European economy, adding a total value of around €5.9 billion and creating more than 80,000 new jobs.

The Science and production of graphene

For a long time, graphene was considered elusive until two physicists, Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim, extrapolated layers of graphite with adhesive until it was one atom thick. Thus, giving the idea substance. For this, in 2010, they won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Graphene has extraordinary properties – such as its exceptional mechanical strength, flexibility, transparency, and thermal and electrical conductivity. Its unique properties meant that the material's potential applications are vast, from vehicle construction and energy storage to the realm of quantum computing.

The research within the Flagship has opened up opportunies for exploring other two-dimensional materials, such as boron nitride, MXenes, and various graphene derivatives with potential applications in medicine, electronics, and material improvement.

Key research findings

  • Integrating a small percentage of graphene into polymers, such as epoxy resins or polyamides, significantly enhances mechanical stability and electrical conductivity, paving the way for broad industrial applications.
  • Safety and environmental impact, the research provided reassurance, revealing no serious acute cell-damaging effects from various graphene and graphene-like materials on critical biological structures.
  • Despite observing transient stress reactions in lung cells, these did not lead to lasting harm, suggesting a high level of biocompatibility.
  • Economically, the initiative was a resounding success, contributing approximately €5.9 billion in added value and creating over 80,000 jobs across Europe, evidencing its far-reaching impact.
  • The continuation of research through EU-funded Spearhead projects and the exploration of graphene's applications in environmental sustainability and electronics signify the enduring legacy and potential of graphene well beyond the lifespan of the Flagship project.

The sustained interest and continued funding for graphene research underscore the material's integral role in shaping future technological advancements.

The Graphene Flagship's successful conclusion is a significant milestone in European research and innovation, and it spotlights the importance of collaboration to drive scientific breakthroughs and economic growth.

As the project transitions to follow-up initiatives, the groundwork laid by the Flagship promises to keep Europe at the forefront of material science research, with graphene continuing to play a central role in the technological landscape of the future.

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