The Enlit Europe 2022 energy conference recently took place, and the Graphene Flagship participated, showing some of the latest energy-related graphene projects. We took the chance to discuss graphene with some of the flagship researchers, and we also talked to Prof. Jari Kinaret, the director of the flagship project, to learn of how he summarizes the last 10 years now that the flagship project will soon end.
Q: We understand that the Graphene Flagship is attending Enlit Europe 2022, showing some new graphene R&D projects. We'll be happy to get an overview of what will be displayed at the event.
At Enlit Europe, the Graphene Flagship exhibited innovations from its Spearhead Projects, which are industry-led initiatives working to move materials from research labs towards commercial applications. Among these initiatives are:
- CircuitBreakers, led by ABB and developing first-of-their-kind grease-free, maintenance-free, low-voltage circuit breakers for fault protection in key parts of the electrical grid;
- GRAPES, led by Enel Green Power and working on combining silicon solar cells with perovskite solar cells, paving the way for low-cost, highly efficient photovoltaic energy, surpassing the limits of silicon based cells.
- Supercapacitors: Due to its high ionic and thermal conductivity, graphene allows for more thermally stable supercapacitor electrodes, that also can be charged and discharged faster, alongside contributing to higher energy density of the final devices.
- Graphene composite materials allowing for fuel savings when integrated into plane and automotive construction.
- GXT-Lube by Graphene-XT which can reduce friction, heat and wear between mechanical components. Graphene could replace toxic and hazardous components in traditional oils and can resist severe temperature and pressure conditions.
Q: We are interested in hearing more about the graphene supercapacitor electrodes. Can you tell us more about what kind of graphene is used and how does it enhance the electrodes and the supercapacitors?
Graphene supercapacitors have the potential to contribute substantially to improvements in this area.
Printed batteries are emerging as ideal candidates to meet the challenges facing the next generation of small portable electronics, wearables, and Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices. Most of the state-of-the-art printed battery technologies are based either on Li-ion or primary (non-rechargeable) batteries which may suffer from sustainability and safety issues.
Thanks to the exceptional properties of graphene, we have developed printed graphene supercapacitors using aqueous and neutral electrolytes with 0.1 mAh.cm-2 capacity (5-50°C), high cycle stability (> 10000), suppressed self-discharge, low thickness (< 1mm), and which are lightweight (3.0 ± 0.2 g) and semi-flexible. The printed supercapacitors are not flammable and have no hazardous components.
Q: The GRAPES project is very interesting to us, as it combines two exciting technologies, perovskites and graphene. What is the current status? Do you see a path to commercialize this technology?
Optimal electrical properties and environmental stability are key qualities of graphene and derivative materials, which make them promising candidates for enhancing the electrical performance and tackling the stability issues of Perovskite Solar Cells (PSCs). As part of the GRAPES project, researchers are using graphene in the Electron Transport Layer (ETL) of their devices to increase the crystalline quality of the perovskite, resulting in improved stability over time as well. These encouraging results pave the way for a future commercialisation of perovskite solar cells.
Q: The low-voltage circuit breakers are also of interest - again can you share more information on the type of graphene and its effect? How close are such devices to actual deployment at commercial electric grids?
Graphene, in the form of a metal-graphene composite coating, is used to modify components of the mechanical drive system of the LV circuit breaker. The graphene-based coatings provide self-lubrication and hence eliminate the need for problematic grease lubrication. The mechanical drive system controls the opening and closing operation of the breaker contacts, which need to act instantly (within milliseconds) and fast (up to 10 m/s).
The role of graphene is in the metal-graphene composite and is mainly to provide low friction (lubrication), mechanical robustness (low wear) and oxidation resistance (environmental stability). The type of graphene used is proprietary information. It is specifically designed for use in the electroplating-based large-scale production process, developed within the project to produce the metal-graphene composite coatings on the breaker components. During spring, full-scale prototype tests are planned and if successful, further productification activities related to supply-chain, large-scale production, marketing, IP and other business-related actions will unfold. It is therefore difficult to say when the expected market introduction will take place, but it is anticipated that this will be in a couple of years from now.
More details on the CircuitBreakers project can be found here: Graphene applications: Circuitbreakers | Graphene Flagship.
Q: Now we turn to Jari Kinaret, Professor of Physics at the Chalmers University of Technology and Director of the Graphene Flagship. How do you see graphene taking a meaningful role in Europe's Energy crisis and climate initiatives?
Graphene has outstanding properties that make it an attractive material for use in various high-impact, sustainable applications. In view of Europe’s ongoing energy crisis, coupled with the European Union’s commitment to addressing climate change and environmental degradation – as exemplified by the European Green Deal – exploring graphene’s potential and making use of its applications is more important than ever.
Some key examples of how graphene can play a meaningful role in Europe’s energy sector and in moving towards its sustainability goals include:
- It can be used to create batteries with longer lifespans. The Graphene Enabled High-Energy Batteries for Automotive Applications (GrEEnBat) project aims to create a working battery module for automotive applications by using silicon-graphene composite anodes in lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) and is showing some promising results. It aims to create more cost-effective batteries with more charge cycles, longer lifespan, faster recharging, and higher energy density.
- It can be used to make higher-efficiency solar panels. The GRAPES project, which works on combining silicon solar cells with perovskite solar cells, is paving the way for low-cost, highly efficient photovoltaic energy, surpassing the limits of silicon based cells.
Q: Graphene has been a huge promise for many years, how do you see the current state-of-the-art in graphene research? What kind of initiatives and areas are in focus?
Part of what makes graphene exciting is that it has a wide range of applications that have the potential to positively impact sectors ranging from health to transport, to sanitation, to energy. Some initiatives are further along than others, however, they are unified by the fact that they hold a lot of promise. There is still so much to explore in the context of graphene.
An area that is currently in focus is the manufacturability of electronic and photonic devices based on graphene ad related materials. Our 2D Experimental Pilot Line (2D-EPL) launched two multi-project wafer runs in 2022, enabling customers to test device fabrication outside of laboratory-style development facilities. We anticipate that this research will entail production of the highest quality 2D-material-based 300 mm wafers for use in, e.g., optoelectronic devices.
Q: The Graphene Flagship, the world's leading graphene project, will wind down in 2023. It has been an exciting 10 years for sure. When you look back, can you summarize the work so far?
It has certainly been an exciting and fruitful 10 years – and the diverse scope of our work can make it hard to capture succinctly while also doing it justice.
When seeking to summarise our work, I would emphasise the strength of the Flagship as a community. Indeed, the Flagship has demonstrated the power of European collaboration, bringing together as it does approximately 170 organisations from across Europe to work side by side towards common goals. The consortium has evolved over the years from a collection of primarily academic partners to one that is now equally divided between commercial partners and academic and research institutes. This collaboration enables us to tackle challenges that no individual country or organisation would be able to take on independently. Our work ranges across sectors including aerospace, automotive, health, energy, and sustainability. We have also published almost 5,000 publications cited over 200,000 times – which gives an idea of the wide reach of our research.
Q: What do you think are the flagship's biggest successes? Can you also share some of the failures?
In terms of the Flagship’s shortcomings, I do sometimes wish that we had invested further in outreach activities aimed at the general public. Graphene research can be complex and is not always easy to understand, with many of the first applications not directly yet many people are curious about what it is that we do. While much of our research speaks for itself, it is always good to reach wider audiences and to communicate with them – and connect with them – effectively.
Among the Flagship’s biggest successes are our impact on global graphene research and on a wide range of industries, which can now pursue more effective and sustainable technologies thanks to our work on graphene and graphene-related materials. Our Spearhead Projects are worth highlighting: these are industry-led initiatives working to increase the technology readiness level of graphene-based technologies, and they are impacting areas including battery fabrication, water filter development, hyperspectral imaging, solar energy, and others. The Flagship has also offered a starting point for a variety of successful start-ups and spin-offs.
On that note: a major success of the Flagship is that we have built a community where academic and industrial partners work together to take graphene and related materials from academic laboratories to society. This takes mutual trust which is built over time, as well as complete value chains and an overall ecosystem with sufficient redundancy so that partners dare to invest in a completely new technology.
A further success of the Flagship that is not always highlighted, too, is the extent to which we have invested – and continue to invest – in young scientists and in people of all backgrounds. Our landmark annual events such as Graphene Week and Graphene Study offer invaluable opportunities for young scientists to learn from established researchers and build friendships and networks that will benefit them throughout the entirety of their careers. We also run a mentorship program and events that seek to encourage and train early career researchers. Fostering the development of the next generation of scientists, and a diverse next generation of scientists, has always been at the heart of all the Flagship does. I am very proud of that.
Q: What are your key takeaways from Europe's first flagship project?
A key takeaway has been that the Graphene Flagship’s long, 10-year timeframe is a significant part of what has contributed to its success as a project. This fact has been recognised both by those of us working internally within the project, as well as by external evaluators such as the European Commission. The long timeframe allows partners to develop the necessary trust to ensure productive working relationships, across academia and industry, and it makes it possible to take an idea through the basic research phase to applied research and commercialisation. In this sense, the longevity of the project is even more important than its large budget. Indeed, the Flagship has demonstrated that long-term research projects have the potential for much greater progress and impact.
A further key takeaway is that that research is a global activity that does not, and should not, respect political or geographical borders. By working together, we can achieve much more than we would in isolation.
Q: How do you see Europe's graphene community in the years after the flagship is closed? Will intense research continue?
Firstly, the Flagship is not closing in 2023: many of its activities will continue under Horizon Europe, albeit organised in a different form. The first set of Graphene: Europe in the Lead calls by the European Commission closed recently and some 60 project proposals were submitted, which shows that the field is still expanding. How Flagship activities will be continued beyond roughly 2026 is currently being discussed.
Regarding the continuation of research more broadly, Europe’s graphene community is now well established and world-leading, meaning the important work we are doing to research and commercialise graphene and related materials will continue. I also strongly believe that owing to graphene’s potential for use in sustainable applications, interest and investment in our work will continue well into the future.
Q: How do you see Europe's role in the graphene industry in the future?
We are fortunate here in Europe to have invested in graphene research early and to have fostered connections between academia and industry – in no small part thanks to the work of the Graphene Flagship – which means that the foundations of our graphene industry are already strong and well-established. Indeed, following investments by the European Commission, various European nations, and the private sector, Europe is very well-positioned in this area. Furthermore, we see that the spectrum of applications is growing, and more and more companies are investing in graphene-related activities. I anticipate that Europe will continue to play a pioneering role in this industry.
Q: Where are the areas in which graphene will make a meaningful impact in the future?
This depends somewhat on one’s timeframe. In the nearest future, composite materials and energy-related applications are likely to dominate, but in the slightly longer-term, applications in the health sector as well as in IT are expected to come in strongly. This difference comes mainly from the different manufacturing requirements in terms of reproducibility and process compatibility, but also from regulatory processes.
Thank you Prof. Kinaret, and thank you to all the Flagship team and researchers!