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Frank Koppens: "We expect to take graphene from the laboratories into real products very quickly"

07 July 2017

Frank Koppens

Professor Frank Koppens is Group Leader at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona, where they work on both the fundamental science and applications of two-dimensional materials, including graphene. He is also a member of the executive board of the Graphene Flagship project, the largest European research initiative ever, and leader of the optoelectronics activities within this program. In this interview, he explains the current research and the future applications of both graphene and other one-atom-thick new materials that are already changing technology as we know it.

Frank Koppens: "We expect to take graphene from the laboratories into real products very quickly"

Professor Frank Koppens is Group Leader at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona, where they work on both the fundamental science and applications of two-dimensional materials, including graphene. He is also a member of the executive board of the Graphene Flagship project, the largest European research initiative ever, and leader of the optoelectronics activities within this program. In this interview, he explains the current research and the future applications of both graphene and other one-atom-thick new materials that are already changing technology as we know it.

When and why did you start working with graphene?

I started working with graphene about 9 years ago, when I was in the United States. At the time there already were a lot of interesting new things that that material was offering. It was something completely new, that had just been discovered and only a few people were working on it. It had a strong scientific interest.

In which lines of research related to graphene are you working right now at ICFO?

ICFO has ten different research groups working on graphene, combining both science and applications, and the connections between them. That allows us to move us very quickly from new discoveries to final applications. Regarding fundamental research, we are basically interested on how light interacts with graphene and other two-dimensional materials, those that are one-atom-thick. Graphene is one example, but there are over 2000 one-atom-thick materials.

We focus on the way that light is converted in electronic signals in very broad wave-length rage. Graphene is able to convert infrared light, while other materials can't, and that is used, for example, in night cameras, which can see things during the night and through fog or smoke thanks to the properties of graphene. That leads to important applications in security, the automotive industry or space exploration, but also for medical imaging to take images inside the body as it could even see through skin.

We also work on other applications, such as flexible electronics. Graphene is a flexible material and it can be used, for example, in future wearables or the internet of things.

You were part of the organisation of the Graphene 2017 Conference that was recently held in Barcelona. What were the most interesting results?

One interesting fact is the evolution of companies participating. Last year there were a lot of companies that make graphene as a material, and now we see more companies that are making the applications, real products out of graphene that you can already buy in the market. For example, some companies presented batteries that can be charged very quickly, in just a few seconds. We also had a lot of scientific programs on the discovery of new one-atom-thick materials, as new things are being discovered every day in this field, also by combining these materials into new kinds of devices.

How do you foresee the development of graphene and the other one-atom-thick materials in the next few years?

I think in the next few years the development will bring many new advanced products to the market. I expect a lot of scientific research in two-dimensional materials that will lead to interesting discoveries and applications that were not possible before. I think the smallest transistor in the world will be created soon, and electronic processing will be more effective. We will also get data communication systems with much less power consumption and I think that we will see these materials integrated into flexible electronics, including wearables, or as part of labels, bottles, clothing or other objects.

What are the main challenges for all these developments?

After things are demonstrated in the laboratory, the main challenge is always how to make them big, how to turn that into an actual application. Labs are just step one, then it takes a lot of time and investment to make products out of research, to make sure that millions of units can be made and that they all will be reliable and safe. That happens with every material: when you do something new, there is always a big step from the first discovery in the laboratory and the marketable product.

For example, the transistor was discovered in 1956 and the first computer only appeared in the 1970s. The hard drive, the storage of information, was discovered in the 1960 and it took 20 years to take it to the market. The touch screen was already discovered in the 1950s and we had to wait for Steve Jobs to use it in the iPhone for the first time. We think that technology goes very fast, but as we have seen in the past, it takes a long time from the scientific discovery to the real product in the market. And it won't happen unless there is enough investment.

What is the Graphene Flagship project?

It is a huge European initiative, the biggest European research joint initiative ever, with a budget of one billion euros of funding for ten years. It coordinates over 150 research groups in 23 countries. The goal of the Graphene Flagship project is to take graphene from the laboratory into real products. It means a great boost. Whereas technology normally takes a long time, in this case we expect things to move much faster because of this large investment from the European Commission. We also expect more companies to start investing in this soon.