It might not make everybody drool, but then Andre Geim is a physicist. He was thinking about small-scale electrical circuits, as you do, when he read something about carbon nanotubes.
“I was salivating,” he remembers. This was less than 10 years ago. As a result of those thoughts about the different forms of carbon he went on to discover — along with Kostya Novoselov, a colleague at Manchester University — a material with a number of astonishing properties.
Graphene stretches like rubber. It conducts electricity and heat more efficiently than copper. It’s almost invisible. It’s 200 times stronger than steel but extremely lightweight. In fact, it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene no thicker than cellophane (in theory: nobody has yet trained the elephant).
You might imagine that the discovery of such wonder stuff would involve mining on the moon or firing exotic subatomic particles at high speed. But graphene was right under our noses. The cost of producing it is modest.
Now everybody is salivating. Last week George Osborne, the chancellor, announced a government contribution of £50m towards further exploitation of graphene, almost exactly a year after Geim and Novoselov won the Nobel prize in physics for their discovery.
It is hoped that graphene will turn out to be a truly revolutionary technology — not merely transformative in a single industry but also capable of reconfiguring entire economies, like the steam engine.
Medical science wants to use it to make tiny devices for diagnosis and treatment. Chinese scientists have found that sheets of graphene oxide are effective at killing bacteria, which may also lead to packaging products that will keep food fresh for longer.
Energy companies are excited by the idea of cheap photovoltaic cells — which convert light energy into electricity — made of sheets containing graphene that could be churned out like newspaper and batteries as small as those that use lithium but are much faster to charge.
Makers of electronic gadgets hope to produce super-thin touchscreen devices that can be rolled up or folded away — enabling you, for example, to put a large-screen television in the coin pocket of your jeans.
Bike and aircraft manufacturers want to use graphene instead of the much heavier carbon fibre.
Tyre manufacturers want to use graphene instead of carbon black in the vulcanisation process — making tyres harder than diamond.
“You hear something,” says Geim of the plans that people are making for his discovery, “and you think they’re stretching it too far. But then you find that it has a chance after all.”
Reducing a substance in size makes it behave in unusual ways — not always helpful. But Geim and Novoselov have discovered that graphene remains highly stable and conductive even in strips only a few nanometres wide.
The pair don’t “own” graphene. It’s not an invented material but a natural substance — an isolated atomic plane of graphite. A pencil lead is made up of many millions of layers of graphene, held together only weakly so they slide off each other onto paper as we write.
Instead, the scientists’ experiments led to advances in understanding its unique properties when it’s reduced to a single layer of carbon atoms. (These lock together in a honeycomb structure like chicken wire. You could pile up 3m sheets and they would be only a millimetre thick.) A colleague of Geim has said that his award proves people can still win a Nobel by “mucking about in a lab”. Over the years there seems to have been a fair bit of that. Geim is the first person to win both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel (the American parody award that aims to “first make people laugh and then make them think”). Geim’s Ig Nobel, in 2000, was for using magnets to levitate a frog.
He and his younger partner Novoselov are originally from Russia, which has raised questions about whether the Nobel can really be described as a British prize. But the funding was British. “To me, these discussions seem silly,” says Geim. “Having lived and worked in several European countries, I consider myself European.”
Although he served as a lieutenant in the Soviet army, Geim has distant German forebears which counted against him: he wasn’t called “Russian” until he was 32. His father and grandfather had both been in the Soviet gulag.
He left Russia because the lack of equipment made experimental science impossible. He came to Britain, then spent a while in Holland, where he took Dutch nationality. He also met Novoselov there and when he was invited to set up a laboratory in Manchester he brought Novoselov along.
Moving around, they believe, has helped them to find new ideas: “In any walk of life there is this fear about looking outside your own area. We are scared to look like a fool. Changing country, even changing your language, is easier than changing your area of research. But many people have overcome that.”
Their original laboratory in Manchester now serves as a meeting room. “It was even emptier than it is now when we first came,” Novoselov recalls. “We had just one pump which we used to create vacuums. But the fact that we were short of equipment at the beginning promoted our creativity.”
Indeed, it is already part of graphene lore that the first flaky samples were gathered using Scotch tape. Geim, who remembers the shortage of equipment in Soviet laboratories, is not sentimental: “Scotch tape is simple, that is true. You can do it in your kitchen. But we would not be where we are, no one would have noticed graphene, if we had stopped there.”
They both insist that winning the Nobel has made no difference to them personally. (“Don’t think that I start my day looking at the medal!” says Novoselov.) But they hope it may help Manchester to get a large chunk of Osborne’s £50m.
That’s not assured, because their openness about graphene has created expertise elsewhere. “We could have held on to the information,” says Novoselov, “but we invited people here to show what we were doing. This material is way too complicated for us to research on our own. We created competition for ourselves, but we gained from our openness in real terms by learning from people.” He has high hopes for that process.
“What I really hope for is that it will eventually offer more than simply replacement of other materials,” he says.
“It’s better at conducting electricity than copper and stronger than diamond. And so on. But at the moment we’re only using it as one material to replace another. What we need to do is step out of the box and find a completely new product from scratch.”
If they are to find it they will need a sizeable amount of that £50m — and more from elsewhere. “We need to be sure that the money is not dispersed too much,” says Novoselov, “so we have critical mass. If we got just £5m that would not be enough.”
And it’s good to spread the money around, he adds: “But not like graphene — not mono-layer thick.”
1209 words. First published 9 October 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.