Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Graphene: The Wonder Material to Save the World Part I

The decision to start this blog grew somewhat organically from many conversations my illustrator and I have had about various new discoveries across the realm of science. Our conversations usually build from a shared curiosity and one of us understanding something better than the other and being willing to explain it. There is one topic though, where we have continuously butt heads: graphene. I am always amazed and optimistic about the possibilities that might come from research into this so-called “wonder material,” while Geoff (who works in the field of nanotechnology) thinks graphene is the most over-hyped thing since those people who were in Twilight broke up. This week's discussion is an attempt to share our incessant bickering with you, avid reader. Now let’s get on with it!


So first off, what is graphene anyway? The average person who doesn’t seek out science news on a regular basis could be forgiven for never having heard of it. Right now, it’s a bit of a niche material, but one day it will probably change your life.

When you get right down to it, graphene is the world’s first 2-dimensional anything. It is as thin as thin can be – a single atom thick. To put that in perspective, aluminum foil is about 193,000 atoms thick. A human hair is between 100,000 and 200,000 atoms in diameter. Graphene, in other words, is crazy thin. It is also made entirely of carbon, making it something like an infinitely squished diamond.

Graphene was discovered, as all great things in science are, by a couple guys screwing around with lab equipment. One day in 2004, Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov, a pair of Russian researchers working at the University of Manchester, decided to see what would happen if they took a piece of Scotch tape and used it to peel layers off of a piece of graphite. They weren’t the first people to do this (Scotch tape is commonly used by researchers to clean up a piece of graphite before putting it under a lens), but Geim and Novoselov where the first people to take it somewhat too far. They peeled and peeled flakes of graphite until they were left with a sheet only a couple atoms thick. From there, they used scientific ingenuity to transfer the bits they had left onto a silicon wafer and won themselves the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

Now you might be wondering why they would get a Nobel prize for that. Sure making the thinnest thing physically possible is pretty cool. It might even be worthy of free pints for life at the university pub, but a Nobel Prize? The answer lies in the doors their research opened up for science and technology. They didn’t just make something one-atom thick, they made it out of pure carbon; and, as we will see in Part II of this post, carbon is pretty awesome stuff.

Come back tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion... (Geoff is drawing as we speak).