Last week, the European Union announced it had selected Graphene and Human Brain as the first two Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship programmes. Flagship programmes are intended to bring together research groups and industrial partners from all over the European Union.
The Graphene Flagship project will get a EUR 54 million budget for the first 30 months. Some 76 research groups, including groups from industry, will participate in this initial phase. One of these is the spintronics research group led by Bart van Wees. ‘The initial investment means one or two extra scientists for each participating groups’, he explains.
Van Wees is ‘work package leader’ for graphene spintronics, one of the research focus points in the project. There are some 12 research-oriented work packages. ‘It is of course an honour to be invited to be a work package leader. This entails coordinating the research efforts in this particular field’, Van Wees explains. ‘One of the groups in this package is led by Albert Fert, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2007. In all, there are four Nobel laureates involved in the entire graphene project.’
Graphene is a special form of carbon, just one atom thick. It has special properties which promise exciting new applications. The EU believes focusing on graphene research will stimulate economic growth. ‘There is certainly an emphasis on applications’, Van Wees acknowledges. ‘But in some cases, such applications are still a long way ahead, so we first need to perform a lot of basic and exploratory research.’ In his own work package, spintronics, applications are not feasible yet. ‘The best bet is sensor technology. As graphene is just one atomic layer thick, the electrons in the material can sense the surrounding world. That can be put to use.’
Spin is an intrinsic magnetic property of electrons, and can be compared with the spinning motion of a spinning-top. Spin can be either ‘up’ or ‘down’. So, information can be coded into the spin of an electron and transported through a material. Changes in spin, caused by outside influences, like a magnetic field, can also be detected.
Once the Graphene Flagship gets under way, more research groups will be able to join the project through open competition. In the Netherlands, the foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM) will host such an open competition. ‘There are a handful of Dutch groups involved at this stage, and I do hope there will be more after the first open competition.’
Prof. Bart van Wees
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