Graphene scoops the physics Nobel prize
This year's Nobel prize for physics has been awarded to Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov for the discovery of graphene - single atom-thick layers of carbon. The researchers from the University of Manchester, UK, were awarded the prize, worth SEK10 million (£937 000), for their finding that flakes of material can be pulled from graphite using sticky tape.
Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, winners of this year's physics prize
© AP PHOTOS
The discovery was made by chance in what Novoselov describes as a 'fun Friday afternoon project'. But it quickly spawned a huge field of research, as the unique properties of graphene were explored and exploited. 'Graphene is a marvellous material to work with,' says Novoselov. 'Anybody can do it - which is probably why it has spread so widely so quickly.'
Graphene combines a huge variety of physical and chemical properties in a single material, adds Novoselov. This makes it suitable for a wide range of applications - not least in electronics, sensing and fundamental studies of the way electrons behave when confined in two dimensions.
Alan Usher, director of the Centre for Graphene Research in the UK, says he is not surprised by the award. 'For decades graphene was seen as a purely theoretical interest because in the 1930s it was predicted that it couldn't be stable,' he says. 'But Geim and Novoselov decided not to believe the theory and just tried it for themselves.' He adds that the simplicity of the 'sticky tape' technique they employed only makes the discovery more remarkable: 'that's the kind of science that really deserves recognition.'
Single atom-thick layers of carbon
© JUPITER IMAGES
That sentiment was echoed by Martin Rees, president of the UK's Royal Society, as he congratulated Geim and Novoselov on their 'extraordinarily creative' research. 'It would be hard to envisage better exemplars of the value of enabling outstanding individuals to pursue "open-ended" research projects whose outcome is unpredictable,' Rees adds.
With the pressure to secure a steady stream of publications and the prospect of funding cuts, there is little incentive for researchers to engage in these kinds of projects. 'We're certainly not encouraged to take risks as much as we should be,' agrees Usher.
Novoselov and Usher agree that the future of graphene technology lies in being able to make large scale devices. They point towards work by Jong-Hyun Ahn and Byung Hee Hong of Sungkyunkwan University, Korea, who made a 30-inch transparent graphene film and a functional touchscreen display earlier this year (see Chemistry World, August 2010, p22). 'That pretty much enables any kind of device fabrication,' says Usher, although he adds that there is still work to be done to improve the quality of such large scale films.
Touchscreen display uses graphene
© NATURE NANOTECHNOLOGY
Novoselov is enthusiastic about the future for graphene research: 'we have a fantastic time playing with graphene,' he says. 'Every day we go into the laboratory something new comes out.'