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Poles Working on Flagship EU Projects
April 25, 2013   
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Computer simulations of the human brain and the practical applications of graphene are at the center of two strategic European Union projects, as announced by the European Commission in January. The EU will subsidize each of these projects to the tune of more than 1 billion euros. Polish scientists are taking part in both projects, which will be carried out over 10 years.

Six international technology consortiums competed for that money for several years. Most of their ideas combined the application of computer simulation with modern electronics for medical purposes and for improving people’s quality of life. One of the proposed projects involved an “empathic” robot to keep its owner company, another was based on designing a computer system for the constant monitoring of a patient’s health, with the possibility of calling for help if necessary.

Eventually, the competition was won by two teams that did not offer any finished products, but their work promises to be a scientific breakthrough, and not only in terms of technology.

The Human Brain Project

One of the winning projects, called “The Human Brain Project,” aims to design a complete simulation of the human brain. Making use of data collected by biologists and physicians, the research team behind the project wants to reconstruct all the processes taking place inside the brain, from the genetic and molecular level to individual neurons to whole brain areas and interactions between them. The simulation will require enormous computing power and huge computer servers. Once ready, it may replace laboratory animals in biological and medical research. Thanks to the project, it will also be possible to observe various processes taking part inside the human brain much more accurately than when using rats, for instance. The designers of the simulation hope that it will be able to learn things, as the live brain does.

A team of Polish researchers coordinated by Dr. Piotr Bogorodzki from the Warsaw University of Technology will take part in the project. The scientists will work on creating a database containing image and genetic, clinical and behavioral data. The creation of such a database bringing together expertise from many areas will make it easier to understand biological processes taking part in the brains of both healthy and sick people.

“Nowadays, some 100,000 MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] scans of the head are performed every day, but these tests have a short life span,” says Bogorodzki. “Patients are examined, doctors analyze the results, and then everything ends up on the shelf. Meanwhile, the idea is that these results could be used to search for disease patterns across the population. Even if our main goal remains unaccomplished and we don’t get a full insight into the mysteries of the brain, it’s always worth trying because new technology and better paradigms of brain research will be designed in the process.”

The scientists say there are three key applications for their simulation: in research, medicine and technology.

Research in neurobiology, for instance, makes it possible to explore the way memory works. At the moment scientists do not fully know how human memory is formed. They are familiar with the basic mechanisms at the neuronal level but can’t really explain how it is that we remember our mothers or our school days, or how we develop skills such as driving a car.

What is essential for medical research, in turn, is exploring the mechanisms behind the emergence of various neurological and mental disorders, and the search for possible treatment methods. During the simulations, it will be possible to observe the development of disorders and at the same time check possible hypotheses about their origin, as well as simulate the effects of potential drugs used in treatment.

When it comes to technology, a new approach is needed to programming computers, according to Bogorodzki. Nowadays, computers are extremely advanced, but there are a lot of things they can’t do. For instance, no computer in the world is capable of holding a conversation about a topic on which it has not been pre-programmed. The scientists hope they will be able to transfer the rules governing the functioning of the human brain to the realm of computer technology.

Graphene, the wonder material

The other winning project is related to the practical application of graphene, a revolutionary new material that could have wide-ranging applications and eventually replace silicon in electronics. The project team consists of companies and research institutions interested in implementing new devices based on this new material, which, according to some researchers, is the wonder stuff of the 21st century.

Graphene has unprecedented properties and offers a huge range of potential applications in industries such as aeronautics and automaking, energy generation and storage, materials engineering, and environmental protection, in addition to electronics.

Transparent, flexible and durable, graphene is tougher than diamond, but stretches like rubber and conducts electricity and heat better than any copper wire. It could prove to be a perfect material for use in electronics. It could be used to make electrodes in LCDs and touchscreens, transistors, microchips and probably many other components.

At the same time, graphene has a simple chemical structure. A sheet of graphene is just a single layer of carbon atoms, locked together in a strongly-bonded honeycomb pattern.

It is already possible to make certain devices such as touchscreens using graphene. Industrial companies are heavily investing in graphene technology.

Scientists speculate that graphene may also be useful in medicine, for instance, to make artificial retinas.

The Warsaw-based Institute of Electronic Materials Technology is taking part in that project. The researchers will deal with graphene production technology involving metallic and dielectric substrates (insulators). The Polish group is headed by Włodzimierz Strupiński, Ph.D., who says that the chances are that an internal competition will be announced as part of a European program to select a further 20 to 30 research units to join the project. This means that other Polish researchers stand a chance of working on the graphene project as well, Strupiński says.

“The fact that the graphene project has been chosen as a flagship EU program confirms the potential and commercial attractiveness of graphene,” says Strupiński. “We are more than satisfied that the project consortium, which includes four Nobel Prize winners, has so highly appreciated our work so far and invited our institute to join the project.”

Science and Higher Education Minister Barbara Kudrycka said, “Investing in the most innovative technologies and solutions is increasingly important, especially at a time of economic crisis. That’s why we subsidize promising projects such as work on graphene with public funds. [Poland’s own] Graf-Tech program (see sidebar) has strengthened the position of Polish scientists and entrepreneurs on the international market. And now, thanks to the participation of the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology in a strategic EU program, we stand a chance of becoming leaders in key fields of technology.”
Tomasz Rybicki

Poland’s National Center for Research and Development has promised to allocate zl.60 million for the development and application of innovations based on graphene. The funds, available under the Graf-Tech program, are expected to enhance the competitiveness of Polish science and the economy and strengthen cooperation between research institutions and businesses interested in applying research results.

The Graf-Tech program supports research and development as well as preparations for implementation. The program aims to encourage the development and implementation of products using the unique properties of graphene. Under the program, research consortiums and scientific centers teaming up with industrial partners will be able to apply for co-financing for projects involving industrial research and development and preparations for implementation.

The Graf-Tech program will be financed from both public and private funds. Co-financing will be granted to anywhere from 12 to 20 projects, with a maximum subsidy of zl.5 million for a single project. Research centers can count on 100-percent reimbursement of their research and development costs.

According to the NCBiR, Poland plays a significant role in research on graphene, yet this role needs to be strengthened further.
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