Russian-Born Scientists Win Nobel for Atom-Thin Material

Two Russian-born scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, won the 2010 Nobel Physics Prize Tuesday for pioneering work on graphene, touted as the wonder material of the 21st century.

Professor Andre Geim (L) and Dr Konstantin Novoselov who have have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics are seen outside Manchester University, Manchester, England, Tuesday, Oct, 5, 2010. Photo: University of Manchester

Two Russian-born physicists working at the University of Manchester in England have won the Nobel Prize in Physics for investigating the remarkable properties of atom-thin carbon flakes called Graphene, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Tuesday.

The Swedish Academy of Sciences hailed graphene, as ‘the perfect atomic lattice’, for its glittering potential in computers, home gadgets and transport. Andre Geim, 51, and Konstantin Novoselov, 36 will split the prize of about 10 million Swedish kronors ($1.49 million dollars.)

Graphene is a form of carbon in which the atoms are arranged in a flat hexagon lattice like microscopic chicken wire, a single atom thick. It’s not only the thinnest material known to mankind now (no thicker than a single atom), but also the strongest: a sheet of it stretched over a coffee cup could support the weight of a truck bearing down on a pencil point.

So why aren’t pencil leads super strong, if they contain graphene? Breaking a lead generally involves a shearing off between graphene sheets rather than breaking the sheets themselves, explained James Tour of Rice University.

And while a person can tear up a single sheet of graphene, it’s still stronger than a one-atom-thick sheet of anything else. “There’s nothing stronger,” said James Tour.

Members of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, left below screen, announce that Russian-born scientists Andre Geim, left on screen, and Konstantin Novoselov, right on screen behind podium, share the Nobel Prize in physics for "groundbreaking experiments" with an atom-thin material expected to play a large role in electronics in Stockholm, Sweden on Tuesday Oct. 5, 2010. Photo: University of Manchester/Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences

Among its other properties, graphene is able to conduct electricity and heat better than any other known material, and it is completely transparent.

Physicists say that eventually it could rival silicon as a basis for computer chips, serve as a sensitive pollution-monitoring material, improve flat screen televisions, and enable the creation of new materials and novel tests of quantum weirdness, among other things.

Graphene is closely related to two other forms of carbon that have generated intense interest in recent years: buckyballs, which are soccer-ball arrangements of carbon atoms, and nanotubes, which are rolled-up sheets of carbon atoms.

It was long thought, however, that an essentially two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms would be unstable and would warp or fold up. Dr. Geim and Dr. Novoselov first succeeded in creating flakes of graphene by peeling them off piles of graphite — the material that is in your pencil lead — using Scotch tape.

Dr. Andre Geim, who was born in Sochi, Russia, and is now a Dutch citizen, studied at the Moscow Physical-Technical Institute and was awarded a Ph.D. at Institute of Solid State Physics in Chernogolovka in 1987.

University of Manchester professors Andre Geim (L) and Konstantin Novoselov awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics pose for pictures outside University of Manchester, England on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. Photo: AFP

He led a wandering research life — “Sometimes I joke that I am not interested in doing re-search, only search,” he told ScienceWatch.com in 2008 — before he became a professor at the University of Nijmegen in Holland.

It was at Nijmegen that he connected with Dr. Novoselov, who was born in Nizhny Tagil, and became Dr. Geim’s graduate student in the Netherlands. When Dr. Geim subsequently moved to the University of Manchester he brought Dr. Novoselov with him; Dr. Novoselov, the youngest Nobel winner, is now a British and Russian citizen.

The graphene creation originated in what Dr. Geim and Dr. Novoselov call “Friday evening” experiments, crazy things that might or might not work out.

In one of them, Dr. Geim managed to levitate a frog in a magnetic field, for which he won an IgNobel — a parody award for “improbable research” — in 2000.

The work on graphene arose from the pair’s desire to investigate the electrical properties of graphite. To do that, however, they needed very thin pieces, which they first tried to produce by filing down graphite crystals, with no luck.

Then a technician showed them how graphite was cleaned before being observed in a scanning tunneling microscope by peeling layers off with Scotch tape.

Here's a model of graphene. Graphene is a one-atom-thick planar sheet of sp2-bonded carbon atoms that are densely packed in a honeycomb crystal lattice. Graphene is most easily visualized as an atomic-scale chicken wire made of carbon atoms and their bonds. The name comes from graphite + -ene; graphite itself consists of many graphene sheets stacked together. Image by Alexander Alus / Wikimedia Commons.

“We knew about the method before, but everything is good in its own time, so one glance at it and we knew — that must be it,” Dr. Novoselov told ScienceWatch.com in 2009.

The technique is still used. “It’s called the “Scotch tape technique,” Dr. Geim told ScienceWatch. “I fought against this name, but lost. It doesn’t sound very high-tech, does it?”

Their first paper on graphene was published in Science in 2004, after being rejected by Nature. A second paper appeared in 2005. Since then, the Swedish Academy said, “research in this area has literally exploded,” producing a growing number of papers about the material, its properties and its promise.

Dr. Geim said there was also cornucopia of new physics to be explored. Because of graphene’s structure, he explained, electrons moving through it do not act like the billiard balls of classic physics, bumping from atom to atom, but rather like waves moving at the speed of light.

“That’s a new kind of thing to study. It’s like the Large Hadron Collider, but on your desktop,” Dr. Geim said in his ScienceWatch.com interview.

The Nobel prizes, founded by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, were first awarded in 1901. The Peace Prize will be handed out in Oslo on Dec. 10. Other Nobel laureates will pick up their prizes in Stockholm on the same day. [via NY Times, AOL News and Yahoo!]

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