Editors note: This is part of a series of interviews produced in cooperation with the World Economic Forum with members of its program on Young Scientists, who appeared at the Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China from September 9-to-11. 

The Q&A below features Christoph Stampfer, of RWTH Aachen University. Stampfer’s research focuses on graphene quantum electromechanical systems, with the aim of developing a new class of mechanically tunable quantum devices based on graphene.

Why all the hype about graphene?
First of all, it has the highest surface-to-volume ratio of any material ever developed. But it also combines an ability to conduct electricity very efficiently with transparency (which means it does not absorb light) and high flexibility. This is a unique combination of properties. Perhaps the most interesting thing for me is that we have just got to the stage where synthetic graphene—i.e. chemically assembled man-made graphene—can be manufactured to the same quality as the one obtained from natural graphite by the “scotch tape” method. It’s this potential for mass production that is the real game-changer.

And the killer apps?
The surface-to-volume ratio is of intense interest to developers of supercapacitors—that is, batteries. This is attracting a lot of attention right now. It’s quite likely that it will also be used in flexible electronics—we’re already seeing companies come out with designs for folding screens. Wearable electronics is another area. Once the costs of production come down, we could even see graphene used to replace tin foil to keep food fresh.

How will graphene improve the world?
In addition to more efficient batteries, which may enable a transition to electric vehicles, it also has a range of uses in flexible solar cells and photovoltaics. One use that is being commercialized now is in water filtration, which is going to become more important as water becomes an increasingly valuable resource.

What would you change in science?
In most countries these days there is too much emphasis on applied science rather than basic science. This is true in emerging countries such as China, but also in the West, where governments and funding agencies are increasingly looking at short time scales and commercial application. Pushing scientists into applied sciences is OK for incremental improvements, but the big jumps are only going to come from basic sciences. It was around 130 years ago that Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of radio waves, but it took decades before mobile phones changed the way we communicate. The graphene business started out as a fun experiment in Manchester to answer a fundamental but technologically irrelevant question: "Is it possible to isolate a two-dimensional material?" Science funding needs more space for "fun projects" like those, which have no immediate application, otherwise we will stagnate as a society.

What do you hope to achieve at the Annual Meeting of New Champions?
One of my personal priorities is to build momentum to change the current incentive system for scientific research. At the moment, there is too much emphasis on academic journals and not enough on book writing. It leads to a monoculture where the only things scientists can write are academic papers. This should, in principle, be an easy problem to solve, but it requires commitment from funding agencies as they are the only ones with the power to force a change in the model.