The discovery of graphene—a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern that boasts outstanding mechanical and electronic properties—has won physicists Andre K. Geim, 51, and Konstantin S. (Kostya) Novoselov, 36, both of the University of Manchester, in England, the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. The researchers will share $1.5 million in prize money.
The idea that a single “freestanding” sheet of graphene—meaning a one-atom-thick film that rests on or is suspended from, but is not tightly attached to, a support—could be isolated had been investigated since the 1980s, when carbon nanotubes and buckeyballs were discovered.
Yet after years of trying unsuccessfully to separate graphite into constituent graphene sheets, researchers had concluded by the early part of this decade that freestanding graphene could not be isolated. Thermodynamics principles predicted that the material would spontaneously roll up into a nanotube or other curved structure. “At that time, graphene was considered a hypothetical or academic material,” Geim told C&EN in 2009 (C&EN, March 2, 2009, page 14).
But in 2004, Geim and Novoselov, who was a postdoc at the time, worked out a surprisingly simple method for exfoliating little chips of graphite by folding adhesive tape against the crystals and peeling apart the tape repeatedly. The team showed that not only could single sheets of graphene be isolated, but they remain particularly stable at room temperature (Science 2004, 306, 666).
The discovery of that rudimentary method for isolating graphene sheets, coupled with graphene’s unique collection of superlative properties, has led to an explosion in research of this “incredibly thought-provoking material,” says Philip Kim, a physicist at Columbia University.
Geim points out that graphene is the thinnest imaginable material, is exceptionally strong and stiff yet stretchable, exhibits outstanding thermal and electronic properties, and is chemically inert.
As a result of those properties, which were discovered in just the past few years, graphene has quickly become a top choice for advanced computing applications, digital displays and various types of flexible electronics, and advanced composite materials.
“Andre and Kostya’s seminal work initiated this field just five or six years ago, and since then, the speed of progress in this area has been truly dazzling,” Kim says. He adds that the Nobel is “very well deserved.”
Geim knows that this special recognition can be a life-changing experience, but he says he hopes to “just take every day as it comes and continue working in the lab as a normal guy.”
“That’s rather optimistic,” he acknowledges in the dry witty tone he’s known for, but adds, “I’m hoping not to make too much of a fuss and to avoid going crazy.”