Two University of Manchester scientists were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their pioneering research on graphene, a one-atom-thick film of carbon whose strength, flexibility and electrical conductivity have opened up new horizons for pure physics research as well as high-tech applications.
Andre Geim and his colleague (and former postdoctoral assistant) Konstantin Novoselov first produced graphene in 2004 by repeatedly peeling away graphite strips with adhesive tape to isolate a single atomic plane. They analyzed its strength, transparency, and conductive properties in a paper for Science the same year.
It’s a worthy Nobel, for the simple reason that graphene may be one of the most promising and versatile materials ever discovered. It could hold the key to everything from super small computers to high-capacity batteries. Graphene properties are attractive to materials scientists and electrical engineers for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it might be possible to build circuits that are smaller and faster than what you can build in silicon.
Imagine “crystals one atom or molecule thick, essentially two-dimensional planes of atoms shaved from conventional crystals,” said Nobel winner Andre Geim. “Graphene is stronger and stiffer than diamond, yet can be stretched by a quarter of its length, like rubber. Its surface area is the largest known for its weight.” Here are some applications of graphene.
The Manchester team in 2008 created a 1-nanometer graphene transistor, only one atom thick and 10 atoms across. This is not only smaller than the smallest possible silicon transistor; Novoselov claimed that it could very well represent the absolute physical limit of Moore’s Law governing the shrinking size and growing speed of computer processors.
“It’s about the smallest you can get,” Novoselov said. “From the point of view of physics, graphene is a goldmine. You can study it for ages.”
Super-Dense Data Storage
Researchers around the world have already put graphene to work. A Rice University team In 2008 created a new type of graphene-based, flash-like storage memory, more dense and less lossy than any existing storage technology. Two University of South Florida researchers earlier this year reported techniques to enhance and direct its conductivity by creating wire-like defects to send current flowing through graphene strips.
The energy applications of graphene are also extraordinarily rich. Texas’s Graphene Energy is using the film to create new ultracapacitators to store and transmit electrical power. Companies currently using carbon nanotubes to create wearable electronics are beginning to switch to graphene, which is thinner and potentially less expensive to produce. Much of the emerging research is devoted to devising more ways to produce graphene quickly, cheaply and in high quantities.
Photonics: Solar Cells and Flexible Touchscreens
A Cambridge University team argues in a paper of Nature Photonics that the true potential of graphene lies in its ability to conduct light as well as electricity. Strong, flexible, light-sensitive graphene could improve the efficiency of solar cells and LEDs, as well as aiding in the production of next-generation devices like flexible touch screens, photodetectors and ultrafast lasers. In particular, graphene could replace rare and expensive metals like platinum and indium, performing the same tasks with greater efficiency at a fraction of the cost.
High-Energy Particle Physics
In pure science, according to Geim, graphene “makes possible experiments with high-speed quantum particles that researchers at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, can only dream of.” Because graphene is effectively only two-dimensional, electrons can move through its lattice structure with virtually no resistance. In fact, they behave like Heisenberg’s relative particles, with an effective resting mass of zero.
It’s slightly more complicated than this, but here’s a quick and dirty explanation. To have mass in the traditional sense, objects need to have volume; electrons squeezed through two-dimensional graphene have neither. In other words, the same properties that makes graphene such an efficient medium for storing and transmitting energy also demonstrate something fundamental about the nature of the subatomic universe.
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