One scientist has earned his right to the title ‘Godfather of Graphene.’
This miracle carbon substance is now attracting tens of billions of dollars in research funding, both public and private, as countries engage in a new arms race to develop technologies that promise to consign today’s micro-electronics and display technology to the scrapheap.
Before long, elegant graphene-backed bendable screens will make the ubiquitous star-cracked glass on today’s iPads, iPhones and other brittle hand-helds into just a distant nightmare. Graphene fibers could turbocharge today’s over-burdened internet backbone and produce “Star Trek” lighting that does not require light bulbs.
Today the international conference circuit discussing graphene, or graphite exfoliated into single-atom thin sheets, mobilises thousands of nanotechnology researchers. But less than a decade ago, when the original interest group met on the fringes of the American Physical Society, its members could fit comfortably into a single SUV.
And the scientist, who back in 2004 might have been driving that very same SUV, is an engaging 48 year-old Brazilian with scientific collaborations in three continents, named Antônio Helio de Castro Neto.
Prof. Castro Neto didn’t himself write the book on graphene alone – but for a decade he has played the role of a world leader in this new area of science and technology. For instance, when the Nobel committee was considering in 2010 whether to award a Physics Prize to Russians Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of Manchester University, it’s reported that Prof. Castro Neto played an important role in informing the Nobel committee.
The physicist won’t confirm this, but he was certainly an honored guest at the Stockholm ceremony. And he remains close friends with the two laureates (now Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov), whom he’d helped to understand the electronic properties of the new substance when the Russians were drafting their original 2005 paper about the creation of the first experimental graphene devices. And Geim and Novoselov’s names have since appeared with Castro Neto’s on a number of important papers. His resume shows that ever since the 1990s he’s been a hyper-energetic writer of papers and organizer of nanotechnology conferences. He’s even at home in TV broadcasting.
Prof. Castro Neto is a passionate advocate of graphene, which he describes as “strong as a diamond, with great stiffness – but at the same time it’s extremely soft, so you can deform it like plastic.” Graphene’s three key characteristics, says Castro Neto, are: “it’s one atom thick; it conducts electricity extremely well at room temperature; and it’s completely transparent. That means the number of applications for graphene is only limited by your imagination.”
Graphene, in fact, could prove to be the mother of all disruptive technologies.
Before long indium tin oxide or ITO, today used in all the world’s touch screens, could go the way of the Dodo. Rare metals now used in electronics such as indium, which sells for up to US$600 a kilo, will become redundant as pollution-free graphene sourced from feedstock like ethanol “changes the environmental dynamics of the electronics industry.”
One commonly-held misconception is that graphene will eventually replace silicon, the material from which every microchip is made. While silicon is a semiconductor, graphene has always-on conductive properties better than copper. “It won’t ever replace silicon because you can’t turn off the electric current,” says Castro Neto.
Yet, unlike silicon compounds, graphene is completely stable and will never degrade. And, affirms Castro Neto, because a single gram of graphene can cover an area of 2,600 square meters, it will revolutionize optical applications such as displays, touch screens, and the world of hand-held devices. Journalists love citing the claim that a sheet of graphene could only be broken by a force equivalent to an elephant standing on a pencil-point.
What’s clear is that this engaging professor doesn’t simply know his science. He has invaluable strategic knowledge of one of the world’s most frenzied research areas. He knows whose research is hot, and who’s come to the game too late. He knows which multinationals are bogged down in the search for high-volume graphene synthesis that will unlock commercial applications.
Above all, he knows exactly how small, nimble laboratories from developing nations could yet leap-frog these big-spending giants to snatch elusive prizes from under the noses of the world’s premier research establishments or its secretive multinationals.
So when it was announced in 2010 that Castro Neto, a Professor at Boston University’s Department of Physics, was also taking up the post of Director of Singapore National University’s Graphene Research Centre, that turned some scientific heads. Singapore has since become a world center of excellence for graphene.
More heads turned too in 2013, when Castro Neto added a third research title to his name by taking up a visiting professorship in Brazil, at São Paulo’s Mackenzie Presbyterian University. Mackenzie’s dean, Benedito Guimarães Aguiar Neto, is developing a center of excellence specialized in graphene-based photonics called MackGrafe (Centro Mackenzie de Pesquisas Avançadas em Grafeno e Nanomateriais).
While Mackenzie may be a proficient engineering university with a solid reputation, it’s not exactly a world-class institution and it’s outside the charmed circle of Brazilian state and federal universities that consume the lion’s share of national research budgets. Castro Neto does have strong links to UFMG, the federal university of Minas Gerais state, and UNICAMP, the state university of Campinas, but it appears he’s focusing his attention in Mackenzie.
Mackenzie University does have access to sizable budgets from São Paulo State and its funding agency, FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation). But compared to the European Union’s EUR 1 billion Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) program, or the Korean industrial giant Samsung’s EUR 5 billion annual research budget, Mackenzie’s resources are tiny, with just a US$ 20 million investment.
Let’s not forget the odds are stacked against those unable to spend big in the Great Graphene Race. Right now, national graphene establishments are a bit like research bases scattered across Antarctica. Every country needs to put its flag on the map, so it can claim a share of any future bonanza.
The UK, although it hosts two Nobel Prize winners, only decided to invest a modest EUR 24 million in the field in late 2012. Today it has just 54 patents and is widely regarded as a “latecomer” to a race dominated by Asian giants. Of the 7,351 graphene patents and applications worldwide by the end of 2012, Chinese institutions and corporations top the list with 2,200, while the US is second with 1,754 patents, its champions being US multinational SanDisk, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Harvard MIT).
So what exactly is Prof Castro Neto doing with Brazil, and how did Mackenzie have the good fortune to land such a big catch?
Firstly, Castro Neto is himself a Brazilian. He may have worked overseas for two decades, but he was attracted by a 3-year visiting professorship to his home country. By joining forces with Singapore, he feels the two universities could punch above their weight in the field of opto-electronics, such as OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes).
Secondly, there’s no doubt the academic is attracted by a David and Goliath narrative, in which Brazil — a nation with no domestic electronics industry of its own — has the ambition and vision to use research to develop a completely new economic activity. There is, he says, an opportunity to develop industries from scratch to secure a new technology future.
“We have an opportunity to do something really ‘out of the box’ here,” says Castro Neto. “And my knowledge helps. I know the field so well I can suggest the niches where Mackenzie can score some goals. We’re looking for small things with huge payoffs.”
The focus on optical solutions means Mackenzie’s graphene research center team led by Dr Eunézio Antonio de Souza will, with Castro Neto’s support, work on transforming concepts into potential products – while avoiding duplicating research being carried out elsewhere.
Already there’s talk of reducing download times with the help of a high-speed, next-generation solution to the fiber optic wires that carry the world’s internet signals. And developing flexible non-glass interfaces for handheld devices that will make today’s tablets look and feel like tombstones. Mackenzie does have track record in developing digital systems for communications and TV. The Brazilian unit will also be working with graphene-based lasers.
It’s an ambitious scenario, that Brazil could develop both the intellectual property around graphene and a whole new industry to exploit it. However, to achieve the goal of building a ‘Graphene Valley’ in downtown São Paulo, something more than academic rigor will be needed.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence then, that Prof Castro Neto and those backing graphene research in Brazil have avoided the stuffy world of federally-funded research universities. At these academies, patrician scientists tend to favor lifetime state appointments, shunning commercial opportunities for a self-referential world of teaching and conferences. “Brazil has an inbuilt concept of ‘pure science’ and academic rigor; but there’s not enough applied science,” says Castro Neto. “I believe there’s only good science and bad science.”
Certainly, Brazil’s shocking paucity of patents, and the genteel poverty of many of its academics, is a world away from rockstar academic culture in the US or the UK. Brazilian professors just don’t write popscience books or present popular TV shows – and few have any entrepreneurial instincts.
So importing a hard-driving Menlo Park ethos will be necessary to realize any dream of a national graphene industry. Perhaps that’s why Mackenzie is planning to hire foreign researchers. “We will need to introduce the notion of the scientist-entrepreneur from scratch in Brazil,” concedes Castro Neto.
So the ‘Godfather of Graphene’ is taking on a series of ambitious challenges.
He’s running a triangular research career in three continents; he’s seeking to show that highly-focused scientists working together in developing countries stand a chance of beating Big Research at its own game; and he’s trying to introduce the concept of the scientist-entrepreneurs to Brazil.
Luckily, he has an ‘atom-thin’ miracle substance to help him do all these things. And if graphene fulfils its promise of being a truly disruptive technology, there’s no reason why these ambitions should not succeed.