On October 5th 2010, Professor Andre Geim and Dr Konstantin Novoselov, both working at the University of Manchester, were announced as the winners of the Nobel Prize for physics for their work in discovering and further researching the wonder material graphene. The prize has been widely applauded and publicised as the circumstances surrounding graphene’s discovery are a charming anecdotal story, easy for the non-scientific communities to understand, and which might play a significant role in inspiring future generations to become scientists.
Geim and Novoselov discovered graphene in 2004, by messing about with stationery. There was a hypothesis behind their apparently erratic method, but basically the two scientists took a piece of adhesive tape – Scotch tape, for British readers – applied it to a chunk of graphite – yes, the stuff that’s usually used to make pencil leads – and used the tape to lift away a tiny thin layer of graphite.
This thin layer was then subjected to further laboratory tests, using somewhat more orthodox methodology, and the results were written up and published in the journal Science that same year – the thin film of graphite being given the name graphene.
It is of course an understatement to say that graphene is thin. It consists of a single layer of carbon atoms in a 2D crystalline lattice. It’s so thin that it provides no resistance to electrons passing through it and theoretically has zero mass. And yet it is stronger than structured steel, more conductive than platinum, flexible and can be stretched about 25% of its length.
It is fair to say that the University of Manchester scientists probably considered naming the material Flubber, after the barely-remembered Robin Williams film.
Since 2004, Geim and Novoselov have worked extensively on graphene, as have other institutions around the world. Because the material is so light, it is sought after for space and aviation technologies, and has endless applications in terms of super-dense solid state data storage, computer miniaturisation (the team have developed a nano-transistor measuring one atom in thickness and ten atoms wide!), the next generation of touch-screen technology, wearable electronics and nanodevices.
A lot of research at the moment is going into methods of creating graphene more easily, more cheaply and in larger quantities. Once this has been cracked, it is likely we will see a lot more news about the material.
Scientists applaud the decision to award the Nobel to the discoverers of this remarkable technology. One observed that anyone who has ever held a pencil could have thought to invent graphene, but it took a special, methodical way of looking at the world for Geim and Novoselov to think to look. Others have remarked that it’s inspiring that in these days of Large Hadron Colliders and electron microscopes, a key discovery can be made by ‘mucking about’ with sticky tape and a pencil lead.
Geim and Novoselov are to be applauded on their work ethic in continuing to work on graphene after publishing the paper on its initial discovery. Professor Andre Geim has made light of the news of the prize, saying that he is not going to be the sort of Nobel laureate who never does a day’s work again – the pair are not going to be resting on their laurels in spite of the £940,000 prize! Contrast this with Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin through sloppy working methods, published a paper and then forgot about it for years, emerging only to take the credit (and the Nobel) from Chain and Florey.
Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim thoroughly deserve the recognition and honour conferred by the Nobel Prize for physics. Their hard work and imaginative approach has provided a story which both humanises science and scientists and gives us the tantilising prospect of a cheap and abundant super-conductor with almost limitless applications.