Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for their pioneering work with a revolutionary new material called graphene. Basically a one-atom-thick layer of carbon, graphene could change the world as we know it.
Graphene is a flat single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a tight honeycomb pattern. It is stronger than steel and conducts electricity better than any other material. According to researchers at Columbia University, “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap.”
So where does the tape come in? Graphene comes from graphite, good old fashioned pencil lead. At one atom thick, it is the thinnest of all materials. After its discovery in 2004, scientists were having trouble extracting a one-atom-thick layer. According to Novoselov, “The way you clean graphite is just cover it with tape and pull the tape off, and then throw it away. So once, I just picked it up out of the trash and we analyzed it.”
In all fairness, the contribution that won them the Nobel Prize was not the tape but their way of spotting the single layer of graphene in thicker flakes of graphite. A layer one atom thick is essentially invisible even with the most powerful microscope. The two researchers discovered that putting the graphene on a silicon wafer changes the color of the wafer, like the colors oil makes on water.
And why is this material so revolutionary? Graphene could replace silicon semi-conductors with smaller and faster chips. Since graphene performs well at room temperature, it might solve heat issues, as well. According to Michio Kaku at bigthink.com, other applications might include embedding the material in plastics so they conduct electricity, replacing carbon fibers in materials to make planes and satellites lighter, increasing efficiency of batteries with graphene powder, plus stiffer-stronger-lighter plastics, better touchscreens, and better sports equipment.
Graphene appears to be a supermaterial. Geim “would compare this situation with the one 100 years ago when people discovered polymers. It took some time before polymers went into use in plastics and became so important in our lives.” Revolutionary, indeed!
Photo courtesy of University of Manchester