The third week of June found many academics and industry representatives in Poland for the annual Graphene Week conference. Editors from various Nature journals were also there, to hear some excellent talks on the most recent developments with graphene and 2D materials, roam around the poster sessions and appreciate (for a little bit) the beauty of Warsaw.
The program was dense, covering of course both fundamental issues and applications. No doubt there was something for each one of the nearly 800 attendees. Most of the plenary talks and sessions were devoted to fundamental physics. Of course, this can be justified given the plenty remaining unanswered questions. There is nevertheless a clear boost towards applications and more synergy between academia and industry. To this end, there were 3 sessions as part of the so called Innovation Forum, dealing with standardisation, commercialisation and the road ahead. They brought together the industry perspective (from industry giant BOSCH to RD Support Limited, from small established companies like Graphenea, to larger enterprises seeking to enter in the graphene world, such as Airbus), academics with an eye to applications (like Professors Kostya Novoselov and Ian Kinloch from Manchester), and spin-off companies (like BeDimensional, from the Italian Institute of Technology.
The message from the companies was clear. Adopting graphene and embracing such a tremendous shift in industry would require a reduction in cost or an increase in performance, both of the order of 10%; and we are not there yet. The latter has been in fact pinned down to one thing: the quality of hexagonal boron nitride, the “ideal” substrate for graphene that seems to bring out its best qualities (in terms of mobility for example).
The moment for this clear shift of interest towards applications is not surprising. The Flagship has approached the end of the Ramp-up period, and has entered the Horizon 2020 phase (Core 1, 2014-2020) with over 150 partners in 23 countries. The specific goals are very clearly laid out: managing knowledge and IP and for exploitation of results, benchmarking (both with other graphene-based approaches and with competing technologies) and further strengthening of the activities among the work packages of the Flagship.
Indeed the pressure is building up; because so did expectations during the last decade. It has become clear that the commercialisation of graphene is not easy; recent discussions over the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester have shown as much. Graphene, much like other advanced materials trying to make their way to the market, face similar problems, like high capital costs and technology uncertainty. Is it fair though to expect the universities to bring the product that close to market, given their limited, public resources? Probably not, but the continuing reduction of industrial research and development spending during the last years is certainly not helping.
While nobody can say with certainty yet what the outcome of this multi-million effort will be, there is no doubt that the field of graphene and 2D materials has gone a long way rather quickly, in only 12 years since the isolation of graphene in fact. Such impressive progress should keep us optimistic about the future.
Maria Maragkou (Nature Materials)
Silvia Milana (Nature Communications)