One of the most promising materials for electronic devices of the future is graphene — the sole focus of a third finalist. It has been touted as a solution to problems as wide-ranging as mopping up nuclear spills, making airplanes more fuel efficient and speeding up computer chips. Russian-born scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov received the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their experiments with this two-dimensional "wonder material" that's up to 300 times stronger than steel — but much lighter.
The problem is how to manufacture it efficiently.
"There is still quite a bit of research to be done," said Jari Kinaret, professor of applied physics at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Kinaret said the long-term funding offered by the EU program would be key to developing what he called a "disruptive technology."
"If you want to create a new technology it does not happen in one or two years," he said. Although Europe, the United States and Asia each produce a third of the scientific papers published on graphene, the number of patents coming out of Europe lags behind.
"We risk that the fruits of research that started in Europe will be harvested elsewhere," he told the AP.
The prospect of Europe losing ground to nimbler rivals plays a prominent role in the arguments put forward by all four projects still in the race.
"If we don't get the funding...we may see some of the European talent move to parts of the world where there is better funding situation, like Singapore," said Kinaret.
Henry Markram said CERN's success was the best example of how polling European resources can put the continent at the forefront of science. CERN announced last year that they have finally found solid evidence of the elusive Higgs boson particle that scientists have been hunting for 50 years.
Markram, a professor of neuroscience at EPFL, says his team wants to do the same for the human brain.
"The pharmaceutical industry won't do this, computing companies won't do this, there's too much fundamental science," he said. "This is one project which absolutely needs public funding."
His Human Brain Project plans to use supercomputers to model the brain and then simulate drugs and treatments for diseases that Markram says cost €800 billion each year in Europe alone.
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