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Nobel Prize fished from the trash
October 6, 2010 11:44


Andre Geim & Konstantin Novoselov

Two Russian-born scientists have won the Nobel Prize of $1.5 million for Physics, for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene, which is a form of carbon, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Tuesday.

Andre Geim, a Dutch national, born in 1958 in Sochi, Russia, studied first at the Moscow Physical-Technical Institute, then at the Institute of Solid State Physics in Chernogolovka, an academic hub near the capital.

Konstantin Novoselov holds British and Russian citizenship. He was born in the Russian Urals, near Siberia, in 1974 and studied at the Moscow Physical-Technical University and then Chernogolovka, before moving to the Netherlands.

When Geim was appointed professor of physics at the University of Manchester in northwest England in 2001, Novoselov followed him and three years later the pair made their breakthrough on graphene, winning worldwide acclaim.

One can say that the couple of scientists literally fished their Nobel Prize discovery from the trash. In a phone interview Novoselov described how he spotted the key to their findings, discovering that sticky tape would peel off single-atom thick layers of graphene for study.

"We had been trying several other methods in our lab. And there was a senior researcher who was preparing samples of graphite (bulk carbon samples) for the attempts. The way you clean graphite is just cover it with tape and pull the tape off, and then throw it away. So once, I just picked it up out of the trash and we analyzed it."

One of the reasons the Nobel physics committee, and now much of the world, is fascinated by graphene is on account of its possible role as the successor to silicon in new generations of electronic devices. Graphene is stronger and stiffer than diamond, but can be also stretched like rubber. Despite its extreme thinness, it is very dense and impermeable to gases or liquids. It conducts heat and electricity better than copper, and can be made into transistors which are faster than those made from silicon.It is suitable for producing transparent touch screens, light panels, solar cells, gas sensors and maybe even flexible electronics. Because of its extremely light weight and strength, it is also likely to be useful in satellite and aircraft technology.

If graphene were in a Hollywood movie, scientists would complain that no such material could possibly exist in the real world. Think of it as a sheet of chicken-wire that is just a single atom thick, but also lightweight, strong (more than 100 times stronger than steel), airtight, stretchable, transparent and an excellent conductor of both electricity and light. A form of it exists in every pencil in your house; the Nobel prize was given to Geim and Novoselov for their work in making graphene easier to mass produce.

"If you look around, everything around you has width, length and thickness," Andre Geim says. "And essentially, six years ago, we stumbled on a new class of materials which has one of those dimensions missing. It's always nice to find a new class of materials, but it turns out this is not just a material that is only one atom thick, but that its properties are very different from what we know about the normal materials in the world around us."

The problem chip designers are facing nowdays is that silicon chips are made up of hundreds of millions of transistors, and as the size of those transistors continues to shrink, the number of silicon atoms available for an individual transistor shrinks with them. At some point, there simply wont be enough silicon atoms available to conduct the amount of electrical current needed to make a chip whistle and dance like we need it to. But graphene, because it conducts electricity so well, doesnt have this problem, certainly not yet.

Tough the discovery of the thinnest known material would have widespread commercial uses, the two scientist say that its full impact might not become apparent for years.

"There have been many contenders that promised to put silicon out of the business, but eventually they all failed miserably", Andre Geim said a month ago appreciating hard efforts needed for replacing a technology that has decades of momentum behind it, like silicon.

"I can only accurately predict the past, not the future," Mr Geim told the Associated Press. "I would compare this situation with the one 100 years ago when people discovered polymers. It took quite some time before polymers went into use in plastics and became so important in our lives."

No one expects graphene products for many years. Geims point, and he ought to know, is that even as the material makes its way into the world, silicon will still be there to kick around.

The Nobel prize committee recognised the pair's inventiveness, saying: "Playfulness is one of their hallmarks, one always learns something in the process and, who knows, you may even hit the jackpot."

Apparently, the committee meant what Geim is also well known (or as his web page puts it "notorious") for - levitating frogs.

The two scientists discovered that non-magnetic substances can be levitated in a magnetic field - a finding they made by making a frog seemingly float in the air in 1997. The frog won Geim a share of the 2000 Ig Nobel prize, Harvard University's humorous take on the Nobel awards that are given to those who "make people laugh and then make them think".

The award typically honors projects founded in real science that tend to just sound goofy. And the scientists tend to take it in stride, often joking and wearing silly hats during acceptance speeches. Among the latest works awarded with Ig Nobel were such as remote-control helicopters used to collect whale snot and a bra that converts into two face masks.

At the award ceremony for his 2000 Ig Nobel, Geim told everyone that levitating a frog led to lots of requests, including one from the leader of a small religious group in England, "who offered us a million pounds if we could levitate him in front of his congregation to improve his public relations, apparently."

There was, in fact, a real point to the frog experiment, which is why pictures of it are in lots of physics textbooks. It demonstrates a phenomenon called diamagnetism. Diamagnetic materials like water are pushed away by magnetic fields, so a really powerful magnetic field can hold up a frog, which is mostly water.

Geim is the first individual to take home both the Nobel and the Ig Nobel. Wonder which one he's more proud of.

Sources:
      TIME
      Forbes
      Reuters
      RIA News
      PC Magazine

Max Yakuba


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