In a laboratory at the University of Manchester, a team led by Kostas Kostarelos is studying the safety of graphene, a carbon film one atom thick.
Determining whether the new material damages human organs is the first step toward Kostarelos’s more ambitious goal: using graphene to build tiny drones that deliver medicine internally, reminiscent of “Fantastic Voyage,” the 1966 science-fiction thriller set inside the human body.
“We’re trying to design vehicles that you can inject in the bloodstream or eyeball or spinal cord or in the brain, to try and get to a particular diseased cell population, so you don’t create collateral damage,” said Kostarelos, a professor at the U.K. university.
Graphene, first isolated in the lab 10 years ago, is 200 times stronger than steel and 70 times more conductive than silicon, properties so remarkable it may revolutionize fields from health care to aerospace. Samsung Electronics Co., International Business Machines Corp. and other companies have filed hundreds of patents to exploit the material.
The first graphene-enhanced device to see widespread adoption may be flexible, or even foldable, touch screens for mobile phones and tablets, now under development at companies including Samsung.
Graphene may also replace silicon to make smaller, faster and more energy-efficient microchips to power electronic devices of the future. IBM in January announced it had produced an integrated circuit made of graphene that can transmit texts.
To make sure it’s not sidelined in a potential bonanza, the European Union has created an unprecedented 10-year, 1 billion-euro ($1.3 billion) research fund called the Graphene Flagship. After decades of watching Asia and the U.S. cash in on ideas developed by European scientists, the EU is hoping the graphene fund will catalyze commercial development and encourage young scientists to start companies.
“Europe needs to do something with innovation,” said Kostantin Novoselov, a University of Manchester physicist and co-winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for his work in graphene. “We need to create a climate for students and post-docs to consider careers in technology innovation, so it’s as legitimate as working as an engineer in a large company.”
Ideas developed in Europe that flourished commercially elsewhere include the MP3 format for music technology, invented by a German professor; and the World Wide Web, developed by a U.K. scientist working for a European physics research agency. When startups are founded in Europe, many of them are bought by U.S. or Asian corporations.
Unlike previous European efforts, where individual projects competed for small grants, the graphene fund is designed to coordinate hundreds of research teams, find ways they can work together and pass the best ideas on to industry.
“The big problem we always have in Europe is commercializing our research,” said Thomas Skordas, who heads the EU unit in Brussels that oversees the graphene program. “So we have to put in place the mechanisms and incentives to make it happen.”
Despite Europe’s enthusiasm for graphene, it already trails Asia and the U.S. in related patents. By 2013, Chinese scientists had filed more than 1,500 “families” of patents, with the U.S. at more than 1,100, according to the U.K. Intellectual Property Office. There were fewer than 500 filed by all of Europe. The report defined a family as all patents related to the same basic invention.
In the U.S., the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy spend a combined $90 million annually on research into graphene and similar materials. The Department of Defense, which also sponsors graphene research, said it couldn’t provide a spending estimate.
While the EU’s graphene program is a new approach, it’s not clear it will succeed. said Nancy Rothwell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester. A billion euros sounds like a “vast amount of money,” but EU plans to distribute it to more than 200 teams over 10 years may dilute its impact, she said. Then there’s the question of oversight.
“There is a worry about bureaucracy,’” Rothwell said. “The EU isn’t known for its light touch.”
The Graphene Flagship embarked last year, along with a sister project to investigate the human brain. Its board of scientists in academia and business identifies ideas with commercial potential, and then connects researchers to companies or venture capitalists.
Three of the fund’s 16 working groups are led by researchers at European corporations, including Nokia Oyj, AMO Gmbh and STMicroelectronics NV. The rest are mostly run by academic scientists.
Other companies taking part are BASF SE, Royal Philips NV and Airbus Group NV. Corporations receiving EU funding are required to contribute their own research money.
The research project includes 142 universities, institutes and companies from 23 European countries. So far, the fund has distributed 32 million euros.
“We expect graphene to become in the 21st century what steel and metal were in the 20th,” said Skordas. “We can already see its potential in a number of scientific domains. It’s not hype.”
Scientists have known of graphene’s existence for decades; it occurs naturally in graphite, the form of carbon used for pencils. Its potential wasn’t unlocked until 2004 when Novoselov and his University of Manchester colleague, Andre Geim, isolated it in the laboratory in a simple experiment using sticky tape, and demonstrated its unusual attributes. The two were awarded the 2010 Nobel for their work.
While graphene’s properties make it unique, its underlying element, carbon, is everywhere –- in plants, animals and minerals -- and no country controls it. That makes it potentially attractive to electronics and defense manufacturers that now must buy their indium and other rare-earth elements from China, which controls about 90 percent of the market.
Because it’s so thin, in most cases graphene needs to be bonded to other substances like glass and plastic, creating hundreds of combinations for researchers to pursue. The graphene fund will also support research into other super-thin structures discovered in the last decade, called 2D materials.
Graphene’s versatility comes from its molecular form, a hexagonal bonding of carbon atoms, said Andrea Ferrari, a University of Cambridge physicist who chairs the flagship’s executive board. Diamond, for example, is also made of carbon, but doesn’t have the same properties, he said.
“The arrangement of the electrons is the key,” Ferrari said. “There is no other material that has the same property.”
Long-range applications could include a system of clothing that generates electricity and powers your devices as you walk; graphene body armor and a lightweight, more energy-efficient replacement for aluminum in airplanes.
It can be used to replace indium tin oxide as a component in the next generation of televisions and electronic displays, said Amaia Zurutuza, the scientific director of Graphenea, a company in San Sebastian, Spain, that produces the material.
Graphenea, which receives flagship funding, is also mixing graphene with aluminum oxide to make ultra-hard ceramics for use in precision machinery.
Novalia, a Cambridge, England-based startup, mixes graphene in ink to print posters and packaging that play music. The graphene acts as a conductor, so when the image is touched, it sends a signal, via Bluetooth wireless, to a smartphone that sounds the chords. Another Cambridge company, Plastic Logic, is using it to make computer screens that can be folded like paper. Neither company receives EU graphene funding.
Four projects, receiving more than a million euros combined, are based at the Institute of Photonic Sciences, in Barcelona. One group is making night-vision cameras with graphene. Because the material is very efficient at absorbing light, a graphene camera can “see” in the dark with more precision than other kinds of night vision, said Frank Koppens, a professor at the institute.
“Graphene absorbs light from any wavelength, and can see on the infra-red and ultra-violet spectrum,” Koppens said. “A lion or a snake can do this, but we cannot. The device takes over this capability.”
Cars installed with night-vision cameras could project the enhanced image of the road onto the windshield, so driving at night could be as safe as during the day, he said. Koppens hopes to have a prototype to show auto manufacturers within three to four years, he said.
Samsung, whose researchers have more than 200 patents, has focused on graphene’s uses in flexible touch screens for smartphones and tablets, and Ferrari concedes its lead there may be unassailable.
“For these applications, we’re too late,” he said. “But to make the whole display flexible, we haven’t lost the race. We’re not fighting head-to-head with Samsung.”
It’s still early in the race, said Quentin Tannock, an intellectual property consultant based in Cambridge. Unlike software and mobile applications, which can be deployed in months, it can take decades to bring products based on new materials to the market, he said. Teflon took 23 years to go from discovery to being sold on frying pans.
The flagship has granted the University of Manchester 2.1 million euros for work on five projects. One recipient is Kostarelos, whose lab received 320,000 pounds ($530,000) in the flagship’s first funding round to investigate the health effects of graphene, one of the flagship’s work packages.
Kostarelos, 43, a native of Athens, earned degrees in chemical engineering and medicine at Imperial College London and at the University of California at San Francisco. After training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and teaching for 12 years at University College London, he was recruited to Manchester last year in part by the opportunity to work on graphene medical devices with Novoselov and Geim.
Kostarelos brought 15 Ph.D. and post-doctorate students with him from London, and his team now occupies the top floor of the University of Manchester’s newest biomedical building. From his office, he can see the Etihad Stadium, home of the Manchester City Football Club, the Premier League champions.
In the lab, Dhifaf Jasim, a third-year Ph.D. student from Iraq who joined Kostarelos from London, examines human kidney cells under a microscope. The cells have been exposed to graphene flakes, which cluster around the nuclei, giving them a dark yellow tinge. Because graphene used in medical devices could collect in the kidneys, scientists need to understand how it’s processed by the body.
Kostarelos hopes to receive funding in the flagship’s next round to explore the use of graphene in medicine.
His goal is a vehicle that can travel through the human body, controlled from outside -- not unlike the “Voyage” film starring Raquel Welch, in which a microscopic submarine enters the body to save the life of a scientist. (Hollywood is working on a remake of the movie.)
While Kostarelos said the drone may be decades away from functioning, a team at Swiss university ETH Zurich is designing a spinning tail, similar to a sperm’s, to serve as a propulsion mechanism. Kostarelos is experimenting with various thicknesses of graphene sheets for a needle small enough to overcome another obstacle – penetrating the walls of a cell. He already believes he has answered one of the critical questions.
“If you design this self-propelling vehicle, and you get in front of a cell you want to transfer therapeutic materials into it, how would you do it?” Kostarelos said. “Can graphene slide through a cell’s plasma membrane? The answer is yes.”