All posts by Dexter Johnson

How Brexit Will Affect Europe’s Research Infrastructure

Post Syndicated from Dexter Johnson original

Despite its byzantine structure, European Union research funding has been remarkably effective at producing results, and has been notably beneficial for the United Kingdom’s research—the UK received €3.4 billion more in research funding from the EU than it had contributed in the period between 2007-2013.

Britain’s likely exit from the EU in an either “no-deal” crash or a settled agreement (currently scheduled for 31 January 2020), will probably damage scientific research both in the UK and the EU for decades to come, according to Terry Wyatt, a professor at the University of Manchester in the UK and part of the working group at The Royal Society that investigated the impact of Brexit on UK research and development (see sidebar for a detailed breakdown of how the Royal Society thinks things will play out).

“Nothing is irreparable but the danger is that it could take decades to recover from Brexit,” said Wyatt. “The damage which has already been done could continue over the next few years, or could even accelerate.”

Even if a no-deal Brexit is avoided, or Brexit avoided altogether, Wyatt believes that the damage to the UK’s reputation has already been significant, and the effects will not be repaired overnight. “I think there’s no question that damage has been done and will continue to be done to R&D and high tech industry,” he said, adding, “I can’t see how that cannot be the case.”

The impact, according to Wyatt, manifests most clearly in two ways. In the first, there is already a reluctance to engage UK partners for EU research projects. In particular, projects have avoided engaging UK leadership ever since the referendum vote to leave the EU took place in 2016. The second impact has been that EU nationals are less likely to want to apply for short-term jobs in the UK. Wyatt concedes that most of the evidence for this second impact is anecdotal, but this is largely because the data on this is so hard to collect.

“An international workforce that can migrate across international borders is the life blood of science and research,” said Wyatt. “If EU nationals post-Brexit don’t want to come and live and work in the UK, I think there’s no question that that could seriously damage UK science and technology.”

Wyatt acknowledges that press reports have indicated that the British government has promised to continue to fund ongoing or already approved research schemes and projects. In this scenario, anyone who currently has EU funding through the European Research Council, or other EU research bodies, will continue to have their research funding guaranteed by the UK and that funding will not just drop off a cliff on 31 October.

Both explicitly and implicitly the UK government has been trying to encourage people through these guarantees to continue to apply for EU funding, and they’ve been trying to encourage other European countries and scientists to regard the UK as a source of good collaborators, according to Wyatt. Despite the guarantees, Wyatt’s experience has been that these efforts to allay fears haven’t helped.

“In the past, we had lots of extremely well-qualified applicants from EU countries,” said Wyatt. “We’ve had virtually no such applicants in recent times.”

The situation becomes further muddied by the fact that the UK government has never said whether they intend to fund such research to the level that the EU was sending to UK, or instead it will just scale funding to the level that the UK was sending to the EU. In the last fully accounted EU research funding period from between 2007 and 2013, the UK contributed €5.4 billion to the EU but received €8.8 billion back in funding for UK research.

But for Wyatt the issue extends beyond even the fact that the UK has received more funding than it has put it in. He argues that the merit of EU research funding has always been that it’s based on scientific excellence. He fears that the UK will alter this guiding principle more towards targeting domestic agendas.

“The money, of course, is very important, but it’s also about the quality of the funding mechanisms and the research that gets done,” said Wyatt. “It’s important that the quality of the research be determined both in terms of excellence and the science. It is vital that research priorities be driven by the scientist rather than some government minister or bureaucrat.”

Beyond the high-level issues of research strategies and directions, the nuts and bolts of bringing researchers into the UK outside of the EU, such as Asia, is fraught with challenges, according to Wyatt.

“The hoops that you have to jump through to secure a visa for a non-EU national is daunting,” said Wyatt. “If every single research job now has to go through those hoops (unless you can find a UK person), it’s going to be a nightmare and it’s hard to imagine how the visa system is going to cope.”

Wyatt notes that the formal UK involvement in a number of the large European science and technology institutions like CERN will be little impacted by Brexit since those relationships predate the formation of the EU. However, the lack of detail and clarity in how the relationships will work going forward does not offer much confidence.

Wyatt added: “At the moment, people seem to be trading on grand promises and warm words. However, in the end for high-tech industries or for R&D, it’s hard to argue that the net result is going to be positive.”

U.S. Battery Producer Celgard Files Lawsuit for IP Theft

Post Syndicated from Dexter Johnson original

In a lawsuit filed in California, U.S. battery manufacturer Celgard, a subsidiary of Polypore International, has sued Shenzhen Senior Technology Material Co., Ltd. (Senior) for patent infringement and for misappropriating Celgard’s trade secrets and confidential information.

The suit has a bit of a spy novel twist in that Celgard alleges in its complaint that one of its senior scientists left the company in October 2016 and moved to China to join Senior, after which he changed his name to cover up his identity. This scientist is alleged to be the source through which Senior acquired Celgard’s intellectual property.

Brexit Threatens a Steep Loss of Jobs for U.K.-Based Tech Companies

Post Syndicated from Dexter Johnson original

As of press time, the United Kingdom was scheduled to leave the European Union on 31 October. However, there has been chaos in the British parliament, and it is still uncertain if the U.K. will exit on that date, or if it does, on what terms. One thing that has become clear is that Brexit will inflict significant hardship on small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs).

As we reported in our September 2019 article on the flow of tech workers from the U.K. to Ireland, large multinationals have the capital to move operations in order to mitigate disruptions. For SMEs, the kind of measures that can be taken in the wake of Brexit are far more limited.

“All the stories about Brexit in the Financial Times have been about big multinational companies,” says Ross Brown, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, and coauthor of a paper on the potential impact of Brexit on SMEs. Brown says that small companies are unable to implement the kind of contingency plans that larger companies developed to deal with the chronic uncertainty of the Brexit process: “There have been a number of detrimental impacts on U.K. SMEs, and I think that’s been the hidden aspect of Brexit.”

If you go by the numbers, the impact of Brexit on SMEs should not be so hidden. Currently, SMEs make up over 99 percent of all U.K. companies, according to Brown. (In the U.K., a company having 250 employees or fewer is considered an SME. For comparison, in the United States the threshold is 500 employees.)

There are about 5.7 million SMEs in the U.K., according to Brown, and together they constitute about 60 percent of all private-sector employment. Brown estimates that 14 percent of these 5.7 million SMEs are high-tech engineering companies, meaning approximately 800,000 affected SMEs in the U.K. are in high tech.

Brown’s research indicates that two-thirds of SMEs have already reduced their capital investment. Capital investment is the lifeblood of a business, he points out. “Unless companies are investing, they’re not able to grow, they’re not able to create new products, and they might become less competitive in the marketplace,” he says. “If that’s happening across the board, it’s not going to be small beer.”

Estimates on the number of Brexit-related job losses are problematic, according to Brown. However, he remains certain that the short-term impact (the next five years) will be significant, possibly translating into a loss of around 20 percent of jobs for SMEs in the United Kingdom.

While SMEs can’t match the preparations of multinationals, there are efforts to take some advance measures, according to Brown. “Some capable and innovative companies might have set up offices in other European Union countries so they can continue accessing the single market without potentially having too much disruption,” he says.

Unfortunately, these measures are not available for all SMEs. And companies that are highly R&D focused may suffer the worst: One of the key points of concern for R&D-based companies is the potential difficulty in employing EU citizens.

This is a great fear, especially for companies in a sector like video games that is heavily reliant on Eastern European employees. “For a big company to open up a plant in Eastern Europe is fine, but for a small company of maybe 10 people to open another overseas office is really quite a major undertaking,” says Brown, who believes that many such small companies may downsize rather than take on this kind of additional risk.

This article appears in the October 2019 print issue as “Brexit Threatens British Tech Jobs.”

Ultrasensitive Microscope Reveals How Charging Changes Molecular Structures

Post Syndicated from Dexter Johnson original

New ability to image molecules under charging promises big changes for molecular electronics and organic photovolatics

All living systems depend on the charging and discharging of molecules to convert and transport energy. While science has revealed many of the fundamental mechanisms of how this occurs, one area has remained shrouded in mystery: How does a molecule’s structure change while charging? The answer could have implications for range of applications including molecular electronics and organic photovoltaics.

Now a team of researchers from IBM Research in Zurich, the University of Santiago de Compostela and ExxonMobil has reported in the journal Science the ability to image, with unprecedented resolution, the structural changes that occur to individual molecules upon charging.

This ability to peer into this previously unobserved phenomenon should reveal the molecular charge-function relationships and how they relate to biological systems converting and transporting energy. This understanding could play a critical role in the development of both organic electronic and photovoltaic devices.

“Molecular charge transition is at the heart of many important phenomena, such as photoconversion, energy and molecular transport, catalysis, chemical synthesis, molecular electronics, to name some,” said Leo Gross, research staff member at IBM Zurich and co-author of the research. “Improving our understanding of how the charging affects the structure and function of molecules will improve our understanding of these fundamental phenomena.”

This latest breakthrough is based on research going back 10 years when Gross and his colleagues developed a technique to resolve the structure of molecules with an atomic force microscope. AFMs map the surface of a material by recording the vertical displacement necessary to maintain a constant force on the cantilevered probe tip as it scans a sample’s surface.

Over the years, Gross and his colleagues refined the technique so it could see the charge distribution inside a molecule, and then were able to get it to distinguish between individual bonds of a molecule.

The trick to these techniques was to functionalize the tip of the AFM probe with a single carbon monoxide (CO) molecule. Last year, Gross and his colleague Shadi Fatayer at IBM Zurich believed that the ultra-high resolution possible with the CO tips could be combined with controlling the charge of the molecule being imaged.

“The main hurdle was in combining two capabilities, the control and manipulation of the charge states of molecules and the imaging of molecules with atomic resolution,” said Fatayer.

The concern was that the functionalization of the tip would not be able to withstand the applied bias voltages used in the experiment. Despite these concerns, Fatayer explained that they were able to overcome the challenges in combining these two capabilities by using multi-layer insulating films, which avoid charge leakage and allow charge state control of molecules.

The researchers were able to control the charge-state by attaching single electrons from the AFM tip to the molecule, or vice-versa. This was achieved by applying a voltage between the tip and the molecule. “We know when an electron is attached or removed from the molecule by observing changes in the force signal,” said Fatayer.

The IBM researchers expect that this research could have an impact in the fundamental understanding of single-electron based and molecular devices. This field of molecular electronics promises a day when individual molecules become the building blocks of electronics.

Another important prospect of the research, according to Fatayer and Gross, would be its impact on organic photovoltaic devices. Organic photovoltaics have been a tantalizing solution for solar power because they are cheap to manufacture. However, organic solar cells have been notoriously poor compared to silicon solar cells at converting sunlight to energy efficiently.

The hope is that by revealing how the structural changes of molecules under charge impact the charge transition of molecules, engineers will be able to further optimize organic photovoltaics.

Is Graphene by Any Other Name Still Graphene?

Post Syndicated from Dexter Johnson original

Consumers may finally have a way to know if their graphene-enabled products actually get any benefit from the wonder material

Last year, the graphene community was rocked by a series of critical articles that appeared in some high-profile journals. First there was an Advanced Material’s article with the rather innocuously title: “The Worldwide Graphene Flake Production”. It was perhaps the follow-up article that appeared in the journal Nature that really shook things up with its incendiary title: “The war on fake graphene”.

In these two articles it was revealed that material that had been claimed to be high-quality (and high-priced) graphene was little more than graphite powder. Boosted by their appearance in high-impact journals, these articles threatened the foundations of the graphene marketplace.

But while these articles triggered a lot of hand wringing among the buyers and sellers of graphene, it’s not clear that their impact extended much beyond the supply chain of graphene. Whether or not graphene has aggregated back to being graphite is one question. An even bigger one is whether or not consumers are actually being sold a better product on the basis that it incorporates graphene. 

Consumer products featuring graphene today include everything from headphones to light bulbs. Consequently, there is already confusion among buyers about the tangible benefits graphene is supposed to provide. And of course the situation becomes even worse if the graphene sold to make products may not even be graphene: how are consumers supposed to determine whether graphene infuses their products with anything other than a buzzword?

Another source of confusion arises because when graphene is incorporated into a product it is effectively a different animal from graphene in isolation. There is ample scientific evidence that graphene when included in a material matrix, like a polymer or even paper, can impart new properties to the materials. “You can transfer some very useful properties of graphene into other materials by adding graphene, but just because the resultant material contains graphene it does not mean it will behave like free-standing graphene, explains Tom Eldridge, of UK-based Fullerex, a consultancy that provides companies with information on how to include graphene in a material matrix.

Eldridge added: “This is why it is often misleading to talk about the superlative properties of free-standing graphene for benefiting applications, because almost always graphene is being combined with other materials. For instance, if I combine graphene with concrete I will not get concrete which is 200 times stronger than steel.”

This is what leaves consumers a bit lost at sea: Graphene can provide performance improvements to a product, but what kind and by how much?

The Graphene Council (Disclosure: The author of this story has also worked for The Graphene Council) recognized this knowledge gap in the market and has just launched a “Verified Graphene Product” Program in addition to its “Verified Graphene Producer” program. The Verified Graphene Producer program takes raw samples of graphene and characterizes them to verify the type of graphene it is, while the Verified Graphene Product program addresses the issue of what graphene is actually doing in products that claim to use it. 

Companies that are marketing products that claim to be enhanced by graphene can use this service, and the verification can be applied to their product to give buyers confidence that graphene is actually doing something. (It’s not known if there are any clients taking advantage of it yet.)

“Consumers want to know that the products they purchase are genuine and will perform as advertised,” said Terrance Barkan, executive director of The Graphene Council. “This applies equally to purchasers of graphene enhanced materials and applications. This is why independent, third-party verification is needed.”

How the Potential Tech Worker Exodus from Britain Benefits Ireland

Post Syndicated from Dexter Johnson original

The confusion around the United Kingdom’s future is already a factor in recruitment

The European Union and the United Kingdom have been embroiled in Brexit for the last few years, with no clear end in sight. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has been postponed twice, and is currently set for 31 October, but disarray within the British government means that no one is sure if the UK will leave on that date, or if it does, under what terms.

The fear of a no-deal Brexit—in which the UK crashes out of the EU with no agreed arrangements—looms over all. The result has been a lot of confusion for both businesses and workers, especially those in industries with a relatively mobile workforce, such as tech.

Consequently, tech recruitment firms based in countries that will still be part of the EU after Brexit, such as the Republic of Ireland, have seen an uptick in activity.

“We set this company up two years ago and we’ve been consistently busy,” says Cian Crosse, managing director of Dublin-based nineDots, a technology recruitment firm. “But now we’re mental busy. And the taps just don’t seem to turn off, which is great for us.”

Traditionally, in the movement of tech workers between the UK and Ireland, it was rare for people move from the UK to Ireland, according to Rose Farrell, a senior recruiter at nineDots.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heavily recruited from the UK,” explains Farrell. “People in the tech industry in the UK prefer to work on contract basis. And the rates are much, much higher than the Irish market can pay so we just can’t afford them.”

However, the job market dynamics between Ireland and the UK is changing, according to both Crosse and Farrell, with a lot more movement now from the UK to Ireland.

“Before, we just ignored the UK market for employees, but now it just makes sense for us to start approaching these people as well,” says Crosse. UK-based workers “are a lot more open to the prospect at this point.”

Crosse and Farrell have also witnessed a substantial increase in multinational firms, such as Barclays, opening offices in Ireland as a way to protect themselves from whatever may be facing them in the UK. The issue for multinationals that are headquartered in the UK, or even run a large part of their operations out of the UK, is that that they don’t know if they are going to have access to the entire EU employee pool, or only the pool available in the UK, according to Crosse.

“It has just made more sense for a number of companies from the UK to set up their operations here in Ireland,” says Crosse. After so many years of uncertainty, whether or not a no-deal Brexit ultimately occurs, or even if Brexit is suspended, “I think companies have kind of said, ‘They’ve made their bed. They can lie in it,’ so to speak,” says Crosse.

This Brexit uncertainty is also affecting non-EU multinationals. Ireland has long been attractive for multinationals because of its relatively low corporate tax rate. However, Crosse believes he’s witnessing something different because of Brexit.

“We’ve been helping some large US-based companies get established in Europe,” said Crosse. “They were looking at the UK, but it just makes more sense for them to set up here along with everybody else in the EU. Ireland has the highest pro-EU sentiment in the EU, so companies can actually feel confident setting up here.”

Crosse further explains that Ireland is also attractive for US-based companies because if Brexit goes ahead, Ireland will be the only primarily English-speaking country in the EU.

This rosy picture for the Ireland has its drawbacks, including potential economic and political impacts arising from the re-imposition of border controls between the Republic and Northern Ireland. There is also a continuing housing crisis, and the recent influx of multinationals setting up in Ireland has exacerbated the problem.

“When we start talking to both companies and employees, one of the first things we have to discuss is how expensive housing has become in Ireland,” says Crosse.

To address this issue, some of the multinationals are offering relocation packages that include two or three months of accommodation. “Companies want to make sure that the people they recruit have some place live when the arrive with their bags in their hands, so they can hit the ground running in their new job,” says Crosse.

Europe Has Invested €1 Billion Into Graphene—But For What?

Post Syndicated from Dexter Johnson original

Six years into an ambitious 10-year research project, experts weigh in on whether the Graphene Flagship can help the “wonder material” make it through the Valley of Death

Six years ago, the European Union (EU) embarked on an ambitious project to create a kind of Silicon Valley for the “wonder material” of the last decade: graphene. The project—called the Graphene Flagship—would leverage €1 billion over 10 years to push graphene into commercial markets. The project would bring together academic and industrial research institutes to not only ensure graphene research would be commercialized, but to also make Europe an economic powerhouse for graphene-based technologies.

To this day, the EU’s investment in the Graphene Flagship represents the single largest project in graphene research and development (though some speculate that graphene-related projects in China may have surpassed it). In the past six years, the Graphene Flagship has spawned nine companies and 46 new graphene-based products. Despite these achievements, there remains a sense among critics that the wonder material has not lived up to expectations and the Flagship’s efforts have not done much to change that perception.

Graphene’s unique properties have engendered high expectations in a host of areas, including for advanced composites and new types of electronic devices. While graphene can come in many forms, its purest form is that of a one-atom-thick layer of graphite. This structure has provided the highest thermal conductivity ever recorded—10 times higher than copper. It also has one of the highest intrinsic electron mobilities of any material (the speed at which electrons can travel through a material), which is approximately 100 times greater than silicon—a tantalizing property for electronic applications.

The Graphene Flagship is now more than halfway through its 10-year funding cycle. To many observers, the project’s achievements—or lack thereof—is a barometer for the commercial status of graphene, which was first synthesized at the UK’s University of Manchester in 2004, earning its discoverers the Nobel Prize in 2010. When it was founded, the Flagship wrestled with a key question that it still faces today: Was the Flagship set up to support “fundamental” research or “applied” research in its quest to make Europe the “Graphene Valley” of the world?