Sometimes the old gives rise to the new in wonderfully unexpected ways. Such was the case with graphene: an entirely new form of carbon, the world’s first 2-dimensional material and the subject of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. This novel wonder material, which offers possibilities ranging from faster computers to new insights into quantum physics, was produced from plain, familiar old graphite, the stuff that fills your pencils. Pencils work because graphite is made from layer upon layer of carbon atoms arranged in sheets a single atom thick; every time you move the pencil across the paper, clumps of these sheets shear off and are left on the paper. Graphene, which consists of just one of these sheets, can, it turned out, also be sheared off a lump of graphite.
Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, this year’s Nobel Laureates, actually isolated Graphene in 2004 in one of their ‘Friday evening experiments’ where they habitually play with new ideas. They ended up using another familiar material, ordinary sticky tape, to ‘exfoliate’ a graphite crystal and found that, after several rounds, they were able to peel off the elusive graphene monolayers. Virtually transparent and of atomic thickness, graphene can only be seen under very specific conditions, and coincidentally Geim and Novoselov chose exactly the right substrate to place their flakes on, allowing them to view them in an ordinary microscope. A new research field was born.
Graphene’s remarkable strength and extreme conductivity, it is a hundred times stronger than steel and more conductive than copper, result from its hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms permeated by a sea of delocalized electrons. Aside from the insights into fundamental quantum physics they offer, graphene’s properties have set the world’s material scientists dreaming of, and exploring, a wealth of possible applications. Among the most realistic is its potential use in touch screens where the transparency, strength and conductivity it offers appear to provide a highly desirable combination. Perhaps most immediately enticing is the vision of further miniaturizing computer chips by using graphene’s atomic scale to overcome the size constraints now being encountered with silicon-based components.
Previous results of the Geim lab’s playful approach to physics have included levitating live frogs, in a demonstration of the importance of diamagnetism, and the biomimetic nanomaterial known as gecko tape. As Geim himself says, “getting some play during working hours for which you are paid is the best job I can recommend for anyone around!”