Frontier Materials technologies are constantly improving the efficiency, environmental standards and sustainability of European nations. Graphene, the world’s first 2D material, is one of these technologies, showing immense promise in furthering these trends. The European Union (EU) has been particularly interested in graphene and its application in a myriad of frontier technologies, including batteries, DNA sequencing, and sensors, due to its high thermal conductivity, strength and electrical conductivity.
The EU has made sizable investments into further studying and employing graphene’s unique properties to solving societal problems, as exemplified by the Graphene Flagship program and the InvestEU’s financing of the Latvian company Skeleton, which uses graphene-type materials to build ultracapacitor energy storage units. These investments clearly further EU goals to promote sustainability throughout the continent, but have become increasingly complicated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the President of the European Investment Bank. Despite economic headwinds, however, the EU should continue making investments in innovative materials technologies and companies as a way to invigorate stagnant European markets and maintain the necessary climate-based transitions required to make European economies more sustainable and less carbon-intensive.
Latvia and Skeleton present an ideal case study for how future InvestEU-financed programs could be most successful. Since the initial EU investment in 2017 Skeleton has gone on to become an energy storage market leader in Europe and several subsequent equity rounds raised further investment. Latvia, meanwhile, has become greener faster than expected and a recent poll suggests that the population broadly supports the transition to renewable materials and resources. Other European policy-makers should use this precedent as evidence for why similar investments should be made in their sluggish countries toward businesses that are at the forefront of materials technology.
European markets, particularly those most impacted by COVID, such as in Italy, and those that have traditionally struggled to achieve a prosperous green economy, such as in the former Eastern bloc, are already slated for massive investments from InvestEU, but these revitalizations must ensure sustainable growth. Long-term funding is estimated at more than €372 billion with the majority of those funds focused on building stronger European value chains in line with the recent strategic agenda of the Union, as well as supporting activities in critical infrastructure and technologies, which bodes well for emerging materials industries such as graphene.
Currently, the outlook for graphene-based materials across the European continent seems promising. The Graphene Flagship program, which reimburses its commercial partners for their R&D expenses, has created a fruitful industrial ecosystem as measured by the number of patents and papers published per euro spent. This success can be seen at many European laboratories or companies, including Italy’s Medica S.p.A, which has developed medical filters from graphene oxide hollow fibers that have proven quite timely, or Spain’s Qurv, which is developing wide-spectrum image graphene sensors for self-driving cars. The InvestEU program should expand these types of investments, since they encourage European industries to both venture into new product commercialization and simultaneously mobilize capital that has been offset by the financial risks posed by the COVID crisis.
Investors may be spooked by the fact that many of the economic benefits created by these flagship materials investments won’t reach commercialization at scale for at least 15 years. Furthermore, the continued risk of pandemic-related market jitters constantly provides investors with reasons to save rather than spend. The InvestEU program, which until 2021 was known as the European Fund for Strategic Investments or the Juncker Plan, however, was strategically created to provide long-term funding that reinforces sustainable recovery, generates additional benefits to those displaced by the socioeconomic consequences of a green transition, and channels investments to many Southern or Eastern nations that have not invested in climate-friendly technologies or companies as much as other Western European nations.
In fact, 30 percent of all the InvestEU program’s investments are already designated as being strictly for the contribution of building a greener Europe. These guidelines not only promote sustainability and climate-consciousness across the EU, which has increasingly seeped into the collective zeitgeist, but also allows many European nations to become more self-sufficient and soothes materials investors' concerns about potential losses in emerging technologies markets.
The EU should seek to make itself a more resilient and interconnected economic bloc that leads the way in the ongoing and future materials technological renaissance. This will help the bloc become less reliant on the import of critical resources, such as hydrocarbons for energy, more equitable and better equipped to tackle future challenges posed by climate change. Investing in these novel advanced materials and investigating how they can be applied to solve our problems is one of the many ways Europe can remain at the forefront of global sustainable development.