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Can Europe's Hi-Tech R&D Bet Pay Off?

New Future Emerging Technology programs seed graphene and brain modeling research to kick-start whole new tech industries. Do they have a chance?

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Europe's Future Emerging Technology (FET) program has announced two new high-profile computer science research projects, one centered on the "wonder material" graphene, and another called The Human Brain Project.

In case you missed that episode of Discovery, graphene is a two-dimensional "wonder" material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb structure. The U.K.'s University of Manchester researchers who discovered it won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work. The goal of the second project is to construct large-scale super-computer models of the brain to better understand neurological disorders and the effects of drugs.

Of the two projects, graphene holds the most potential to change the computer industry. It is the thinnest material known and yet also one of the strongest. It conducts electricity as efficiently as copper and outperforms all other materials as a conductor of heat.

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Graphene is almost completely transparent but so dense that even the smallest atom helium can't pass through it. The payoff: If pundits are right, graphene could form the basis of everything from fast, flexible and strong consumer electronics such as electronic paper and bendable personal communication devices to lighter and more energy efficient airplanes. Eventually, it could make possible revolutionary medical applications such as completely artificial retinas.

To start getting there, Brussels has set up The Graphene Flagship, a structure to coordinate 126 academic and industrial research groups in 17 European countries with an initial 30-month-budget of 54 million euro ($73 million). That money is to be spent over the next two and a half years on communications technologies and the application of graphene in the transport and energy sectors. Flagship members, meanwhile, also are tasked with building bridges between the best European scientists and industrialists, with the ultimate goal of seeding links between universities and commercial firms.

This is not Europe's first large-scale foray into graphene research. Last year British Chancellor George Osborne gave $79 million (£50 million) to research the material. The European Commission has optimistically stated that graphene will "revolutionize multiple industries and create economic growth and new jobs in Europe," and has made comparisons to the U.S. "So, you've heard of Silicon Valley," challenged European Commission VP Neelie Kroes. "Where in Europe wants to be known as 'Graphene Valley'? That's the billion-euro question I am putting to you today."

Project members are realistic, however, about the time frame. "No one can accurately predict what the future holds for us," said Graphene Flagship chairman Sir Andre Geim at the Monday Brussels press conference held to announce the two new FET projects. "But with so many potential technologies that have already been suggested for graphene, even statistically the chances are sky high that graphene will bring around some really important future technologies.”

With "sky high," Geim might be referring to the fact that it typically takes 40 years for a new material to move from academia to consumer shelves. Still, ambition and risk are adjectives not typically applied to European tech research and the lofty aims are meant to dispel disaffection with the Continent's relatively poor position vis-à-vis its global rivals, North America and Asia, in terms of electronics and computing innovation.

It's not like those regions have not also spotted the potential of graphene. This is causing real fears in the U.K. -- the country that claims to have invented computing and watched its lead ebb away to the States -- that it might already be fatally behind. Despite the U.K.'s early lead, The People's Republic of China and the U.S. already have more patents than the U.K. in graphene work, says the BBC.

Brits have a real paranoia about losing control of another technology, with a think tank recently claiming that at least eight interesting areas from graphene to big data robot vehicles and synthetic organisms have their roots in the island but can easily end up being commercialized outside it. Science and Universities Minister David Willetts, the politician who leads U.K. research funding, has put it even more bluntly: "Sometimes our approach can look like mother birds pushing their fledglings out of the nest -- but with too many falling to the forest floor, to be eaten by foxes."

Willets says the nation's business leaders need to overcome a historic legacy of underinvestment in research. "Strong markets and flexible markets is a good combination. But, like patriotism, it is not enough," he said earlier this month. "It misses out crucial stuff in the middle -- real decisions on backing key technologies on their journey from the lab to the marketplace. That is the missing third pillar to any successful high-tech strategy."

FET, launched in 2011, is a 10-year, $1.3 billion initiative to push Europe to the forefront of new technology. Other projects include IT in healthcare and "robot companions for humans."

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