On October 5th, 2010, it was announced that two UK-based scientists had been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on graphene, which has been described as a ‘wonder material’. But what is graphene?
Graphene is a complex carbon material which the University of Manchester research team of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov first created in 2004. It consists of a thin film of carbon which is strong, flexible and conductive. And by thin, we’re talking the thickness of a single carbon atom. In New Scientist magazine, Geim has described graphene as a crystal one atom thick: “essentially two-dimensional planes of atoms shaved from conventional crystals”. Geim has also talked about the material’s ability to be stretched by up to 25% of its length, like rubber.
The material was first produced in 2004 when Geim and his then postdoctoral assistant Novoselov peeled strips of graphite away from a sheet of the carbon material using an adhesive tape until they were left with a film just one atom thick. The resulting material, graphene, was tested rigorously and the results written up for the journal Science.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize to this team for the discovery and research of graphene has been widely applauded, as graphene is viewed as one of the most exciting materials to have been developed for a very long time indeed. Its strength, flexibility and conductivity mean that it has the potential to be an incredibly versatile material, with applications mooted in miniaturisation of computer chips and in space and aviation technology, where it is thought it will be particularly prized due to its lightness.
As well as incredibly small computers, graphene could hold the key to creating high-capacity batteries. Or incredibly dense solid state data storage along the lines of flash memory. The Manchester team have already succeeded in constructed a nano-transistor – a graphene transistor one atom thick and ten atoms long. The University of South Florida has been working to enhance and direct the material’s conductivity, and Graphene Energy in Texas is using graphene to develop ultra-capacitors to store and transmit electrical power.
The hope with graphene’s conductivity is that it might one day supplant rare metals such as platinum, and potentially at a fraction of the cost.
Because of the material’s flexibility and thinness, researchers in wearable electronics are also incredibly excited by graphene, while at the other end of the scale, some physicists are keen to experiment with graphene because it is effectively two dimensional. With only one layer of atoms, electrons can pass through graphene with no resistance, and according to Geim this will make experiments possible with high-speed quantum particles which even CERN’s scientists could not hope to replicate.
At this stage, a lot of research is being directed into ways of producing graphene more quickly, more cheaply and in larger quantities in order to facilitate its technological use as well as its experimental applications. The success of this research will probably determine the ultimate usefulness of graphene.
Time will tell how far graphene will revolutionise computing and particle physics, but it has opened up some exciting avenues for research.