Interview with the Director of the Graphene Centre in Cambridge, juror of the Region Prize
From his degree in Nuclear Engineering at Milan Polytechnic to the management of the Cambridge Graphene Centre (of which he is also founder), one of the world's leading centres for the study of this extraordinary two-dimensional material with countless applications and great potential for research.
This is the CV of Andrea C. Ferrari, one of the 15 top scientists chosen by the Lombardy Region for the Jury of the “Lombardy Is Research” international prize, which in the last edition was awarded to the molecular biologist Guido Kromer (to learn more, read here).
Professor of Nanotechnology and Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre at the University of Cambridge, Ferrari is also Chairman of the Management Panel of the “Graphene Flagship”, a project funded by the European Community with one billion euros for the first 10 years for the study of this material, composed of a layer of carbon atoms in hexagonal formation, as resistant as a diamond but as flexible as plastic, with very peculiar electronic, optical, thermal and mechanical properties.
Professor, what are the current applications of graphene and what qualities do they exploit?
“This material has been studied for more than 15 years now, even in Italy by a large number of researchers. And there are already many products made of graphene. It's used for skis and tennis rackets, trekking or gym shoes and bicycle tires. An Italian company even used it to make a motorcycle helmet. In all these cases, graphene guarantees a higher mechanical yield. It makes the product more robust and at the same time lighter, or adds greater capacity for heat exchange with the environment, a useful quality for shoes and helmets.
However innovative, these are actually the simplest applications of graphene. The most complex applications are still being developed in laboratories, for example those looking at 5G and the future of telecommunications”.
“From data traffic affecting global warming to a new generation of batteries: Graphene enables faster transmissions with lower power consumption or higher charging capacity”
What impact can graphene have on the 5G “revolution”?
“There have been important Italian contributions in this area by Ericsson in Pisa, Nokia in Vimercate and the National Interuniversity Consortium for Telecommunications at the Scuola Sant'Anna in Pisa where light modulators for data transmission are developed. In this case, graphene makes it possible to significantly reduce the transmission's energy consumption.
To quantify its impact, consider that today 4% of global warming is due to data traffic. In the future, graphene will make it possible to transmit data faster and with lower energy consumption. More importantly, you have to keep in mind that once transmitted, the data must also be recognised by the user. A photo detector is used for this purpose, and even here graphene allows the data to be read more quickly and with less energy than traditional technology. In short, this material represents the ideal choice for a future where we want to transmit more and more data. And not just to reduce energy consumption, but also because without this option and with an increasing amount of data traffic smartphones would end up consuming their battery power too quickly.
In this regard, I would like to point outa new generation of batteries based on silicon and graphene – that the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, among others, is working on – with a higher capacity, or with the same capacity but smaller and lighter. And there are already audio headphones on the market based on graphene membranes, and fabrics made flame retardant by graphene that are already working in the laboratory and that now have to be tested to be applied”.
“Graphene is only the first in a new class of 2,000 to 5,000 layered materials: the research potential is endless, but it takes 20-30 years for each one to move from basic research to applications”.
Are there also possible applications in neurology?
“Yes, but very futuristic. We're talking about much longer-term developments, i.e. basic research at an experimental level. Just to give an idea, I can cite a partnership with Professor Maurizio Prato of the University of Trieste (former juror for the Lombardy Is Research award, ed.) who studies bio-applications. With him we have seen that graphene can be used as a substrate for the development of neurons because it doesn't damage the development but rather favours it.
Another project we're working on is to try to repair the damage to the spinal cord that causes paralysis. We are now discussing the possibility of restoring damaged nerve connections using fibres based on graphene or covered with graphene, and retinal implants using graphene for patients who have lost sight are also being studied.... But I repeat, this is all basic research that will necessarily follow a long path that will require testing in vivo and overall at least 10-15 years to get to practical applications, since we'll have to start from laboratory demonstrations that are already complete while in neurology we have not yet reached this goal.
In general you have to consider that research on any new material – from its discovery through experiments to mass application – can take up to 40 years. Well, 15 years have passed since the pioneering experiments on graphene by the physicists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov. In the next 5-10 years we expect research on this material to peak, followed by the launch of mass applications: but there is still a long way to go. Also because now when we talk about graphene it means much more than we think”.
What do you mean? What else is there to learn about graphene?
“In these 15 years we have realised – also thanks to the contribution of Italians like Professor Nicola Marzari, now working in Switzerland – that graphene is only the first in a new class of layered materials, which today we estimate to count between 2,000 and 5,000. But only 10-15 of these have been studied so far, and not all of them to the same extent. The second material to have been recognised as important by the international scientific community, borium nitride, for example, has been studied much less than graphene. In short, we can say we've only discovered the tip of the iceberg’s tip.
Not to mention another extremely interesting aspect, only studied in the last 5-6 years, and that is that we can superimpose two layers of graphene and we can do it at different angles.
Depending on the angle chosen the material can be insulating, a semiconductor or superconducting, the properties depending solely on the arrangement of the layers and not on the materials placed on top of each other.
So not only are we talking about thousands of materials to explore, but also thousands of possible combinations between these same materials, and for each pair or trio of materials thousands of possible arrangements with respect to each other. This is truly exceptional: we find ourselves dealing with a class of materials structured like books, i.e. made of several superimposed layers, offering an almost infinite variety.
It is a quite an intriguing perspective from the point of view of basic research. However, this means that for every new material in this class or for every new combination of layered materials we are faced with the usual 20-30 year development cycle necessary to go from basic research to applications. As with carbon fibres, where decades passed between the first studies and large-scale applications in the automotive sector, applications that were first seen in the Formula 1 circuit.
I stress this because unfortunately today there is a tendency to confuse the development of innovative materials with software, where a second-year university student can launch a company and become a billionaire. In our case we're talking about decades of research and development that require a considerable investment”.
With Brexit the centre that you run will be leaving the EU. What prospects are there for Europe in the study of these new materials?
“First let's say that Brexit makes no sense from the point of view of researchers.... As far as graphene is concerned, however, Europe has made very far-sighted decisions which place us firmly ahead of any other country. By this I mean the launch of Graphene Flagship, a research programme that started in 2013 and of which I am one of the founders. This programme has been included in Horizon Europe so it can continue until at least 2027. We're currently discussing the level of funding for the period after 2023. Thanks to this initiative, Europe has inspired similar programmes in China, Singapore, Japan and the United States. Moreover, the EU has other research support initiatives like the European Research Council (ERC) and “missions”, which also make it a world leader in funding both basic and applied research.
The “Lombardy Is Research” award that you're a juror for isn't just interesting for specialists but also for the general public...
“For me it's a very important initiative. I was happy to be involved for a couple of years in a jury that included professionals of a very high scientific calibre, as were the nominees proposed for the award, and this just a few years after the start. It means that “Lombardy Is Research” is becoming an important recognition. I hope it will increasingly have a resonance equal to that of the Nobel Prize. I think it's very possible.
The 2019 edition was particularly interesting for the general public, as Healthy Ageing is a topic that everyone can understand. And then there's also the jury's encouragement to the winner to develop some lines of research in Lombardy: this also seems very positive to me”.