‘Human Brain’ and graphene research get a 1 billion € funding boost from EU

28 Jan, 2013



(updated) It’s official: Neelie Kroes announced this morning that  the two “flagship” programs for Future and Emerging Technologies of the European Union are graphene and the ‘Human Brain’ project.

The research programs will receive € 1 billion each over the next ten years. Half of the funding will be provided by the European Commission and half by participants – mostly huge consortiums of universities, research centers and multinationals. The flagships were chosen after a two year competition between six projects.

The goal of the flagships is to advance science in areas that are of strategic importance for European economy and society as a whole:

The “flagships” are ambitious large-scale, science-driven, research initiatives that aim to achieve a visionary goal. The scientific advance should provide a strong and broad basis for future technological innovation and economic exploitation in a variety of areas, as well as novel benefits for society.

Graphene

Graphene is a sheet of carbon that is exactly one atom thick. It’s both the thinnest and the strongest material known to science. It also conducts electricity better than copper. The uses for graphene range from faster transistors to foldable computer displays and better batteries – that’s why it’s called a ‘wonder material’:

Graphene is an extraordinary combination of physical and chemical properties: it is the thinnest material, it conducts electricity much better than copper, it is 100-300 times stronger than steel and it has unique optical properties.

The use of graphene was made possible by European scientists in 2004, and the substance is set to become the wonder material of the 21st century, as plastics were to the 20th century.

Because of its properties, graphene is considered the best candidate for replacing silicon as the material for transistors.

Scientists knew about the qualities of graphene, but thought it would be impossible to isolate stable sheets of the material, believing they would curl up or clump together. But in 2004, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester used Scotch tape to peel away layer after layer of pencil lead, and showed that it was possible to end up with a single, stable sheet of carbon atoms – graphene. Contrary to what scientists had expected, the sheets of graphene didn’t curl up or lump together. Gaim and Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery in 2010.

According to Geim, it’s impossible to predict where graphene will yield the biggest breakthroughs: there are too many promising research areas to pick one. ‘Ten thousand papers were published last year on graphene’, he told the FT. He also said that the injection of money from Europe will probably be “spread thinly” around Europe. He expected it to serve more as some kind of ‘seed funding’ incentive for other universities and research institutions to join the graphene research.

In the press release announcing graphene, the European Commission said:

Graphene looks to become as important as steel or plastics in the long-term. Research on graphene is an example of an emerging translational nanotechnology where discoveries in academic laboratories are rapidly transferred to applications and commercial products.

Graphene and related materials have the potential to make a profound impact in ICT in the short and long term: integrating graphene components with silicon-based electronics, and gradually replacing silicon or enabling completely new applications. Beyond ICT, graphene research will significantly impact energy and transport, and also health.

 

Human Brain project

The Human Brain Project builds on the work of the Blue Brain Project by Henry Markram of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

Markram thinks that instead of studying individual areas of the brain, science should try to build a unified model of the brain. If done correctly, this should leapfrog the cumbersome, piecemeal approach from his colleagues that he thinks is unsatisfying.

The end goal is to build a brain that is intelligent and behaves like a human, confirms Markram:  ”It is not impossible to build a human brain and we can do it in 10 years,”  he said in 2009 at the TED conference in Oxford. In a BBC interview he said: “If we build it correctly it should speak and have an intelligence and behave very much as a human does.”

The research would lead to breakthroughs in medicine, but also in computing:

In medicine, the project’s results will facilitate better diagnosis, combined with disease and drug simulation.

In computing, new techniques of interactive supercomputing, driven by the needs of brain simulation, will impact a range of industries, while devices and systems, modelled after the brain, will overcome fundamental limits on the energy-efficiency, reliability and programmability of current technologies, clearing the road for systems with brain-like intelligence. (source)

Not everybody is a fan of Markram’s work, though. Some of his colleagues fear that by investing too much into this one approach, other promising research will suffer.

via FT, Nature

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Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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