Graphene is a material which has great hopes resting on it – especially in communications technology but also in the construction of very light, stable structures and batteries. The EU has now made research into this material one of its key scientific objectives, having declared the European graphene research project one of its two new "flagship projects". Europe is now set to make a one billion euro investment into a research project investigating graphene and its technological uses. Austria will also be contributing and TU Vienna's Thomas Müller, Austria's coordinator for the project, will draw on EU support to step up his research into graphene.
Light in Computers
The new material, which is made up of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice, has been considered a beacon of hope since at least 2010, when Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics following their experiments with graphene. Thomas Müller from TU Vienna's Institute of Photonics is researching the photoelectric effect in graphene. When light particles hit the material they can knock electrons out of place. The electrons start to move and an electric current starts to flow.
The conversion of light into electric current is extremely important for computer technicians. For instance, you may want to convert light signals produced from a fibre optic cable into electric signals for the computer. "The photoelectric effect is many times faster in graphene than in conventional materials such as germanium," explains Müller. "If we succeed in making these components out of graphene, they will become much quicker, more efficient, smaller and cheaper than ever before." This would not just be a major step forward for communication over the internet but also for the exchange of data within the computer. "Nowadays, many computers have either two or four processor cores. If we are going to start using, say, 300 cores in future, then a vast amount of data will need to be exchanged between them. There are great benefits to be had from transferring this data through optical, rather than through electronic means," he adds.
A Detector for Light with Long Wavelengths
Computer engineering is not the only area in which graphene will hopefully be used in the future. Its special electronic structure makes the material suitable for detecting longwave radiation, which could be useful in the field of molecular spectroscopy because longwave radiation is closely linked to molecular vibrations and rotations. Graphene should also open up new opportunities in the field of medical technology.
A Billion Euros to Last Ten Years
The industry has long since recognised the opportunities offered by this material. The project's partners therefore include universities, industrial research institutes and, in Austria, battery manufacturer VARTA. There are also others at TU Vienna besides Thomas Müller who are researching graphene, including Prof Burgdörfer (Theoretical Physics), Prof Ernst Kozeschnik (Materials Science and Technology) and the Computer Materials Science Group in the Institute of Applied Physics. A total of 126 academic and private research groups from 17 European countries will initially be involved in the EU project, with more set to join later. The EU flagship project will run for a period of ten years, coordinated by Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden.
There are currently four European Nobel Prize winners on the project's Strategic Advisory Council, including Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, leaders in graphene research, and also Albert Fert, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the giant magnetoresistance effect – a breakthrough that enabled the evolution of computer hard drives. The project is also supported by Klaus von Klitzing, who received the Nobel Prize for the quantum Hall effect, which has also been measured in graphene. The synthesis of quantum theory and technological application is a hallmark of a remarkable European tradition which the flagship project is now set to follow.
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Dr Thomas Müller
Institute of Photonics
Vienna University of Technology
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