6 October 2010

Graphene pioneers win Nobel Physics Prize

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

Andre Geim (pictured) and Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Physics Prize for their work with graphene - the thinnest and strongest nano-material in the world. Credit: AFP

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

Both laureates began their careers as physicists in Russia but now work at the University of Manchester in Britain. Geim holds Dutch nationality and Novoselov is both a British and Russian national.

The Swedish Academy of Sciences hailed graphene, a form of carbon developed only six years ago, for its glittering potential in computers, home gadgets and transport.

World’s thinnest and strongest nano-material

It lauded Geim, 51, and Novoselov, 36, for having “shown that carbon in such a flat form has exceptional properties that originate from the remarkable world of quantum physics.”

Just one atom thick, it is the world’s thinnest and strongest nano-material, almost transparent and able to conduct electricity and heat.

As a result, graphene is described as the candidate material to replace silicon semi-conductors.

Super-strong touch screens and solar cells

Graphene transistors would in theory be able to run at faster speeds and cope with higher temperatures than today’s classic computer chips.

That would resolve a fast-growing problem facing chip engineers who want to boost power and shrink semiconductor size but without raising temperatures, the bugbear of computing.

Its transparency means it could potentially be used in touch screens and even solar cells, and when mixed with plastics would provide light but super-strong composite materials for next-generation satellites, planes and cars.

Levitating frogs make research fun

The Nobel jury acknowledged that most of the practical applications of graphene – developed at the University of Manchester in 2004 – “exist only in our fantasies, but many are already being tested.”

The committee added the laureates believed research should be fun. For instance, Geim managed in 1997 to make a frog levitate in a magnetic field, the jury said, calling it “an ingenious way of illustrating the principles of physics.”

Geim told the committee he was looking at emails and looking at archives when he got the call.

No rest for the laureate

“I slept well, I didn’t expect the Nobel Prize this year,” he said, adding he was going straight back to work.

“In my opinion there are several categories of Nobel Prize winners, one which after getting the Nobel Prize stop doing anything for the rest of their life. It is a big disservice for the community,” he said.

The other category of people, which he said he belonged to, were “people who think people think they won the Nobel Prize by accident so they start working even harder than before.”

‘Gecko tape’ another achievement

Novoselov, who began working for Geim as a PhD student in the Netherlands and at 36 is one of the youngest laureates of the Nobel Physics Prize, told the TT news agency he was “shocked” by the nod.

“This is just crazy,” he said, adding that he had not been expecting the prize despite speculation that 2010 could be his year. “I have learned not to listen to speculation,” he said.

In 2003, the pair of laureates developed the so-called ‘gecko tape,’ a super sticky tape inspired by the Gecko lizard’s ability to stick to even the smoothest surfaces.

Inventive lab work rewarded

“Throughout my career I have jumped from one research subject to another. Before graphene, there were other successes including gecko tape, mesiscopic superconductivity and levitating frogs,” Geim said in 2009.

“Yes, it is hard to jump between subjects but it is worth the effort. It is also great fun to search for something unexpected rather than re-search the same area from the academic cradle to the grave,” he said.

“The award of this Nobel Prize will bring a smile to the face of every scientist because it shows you can still get a Nobel Prize by mucking about in a lab,” said Mark Miodownik, Head of the Materials Research Group, King’s College London.

“It turns out that anyone who has ever held a pencil could have discovered this amazing new material, but it was Professors Geim and Novoselov who took the time to look carefully.”

The benefits of scientific curiosity

The University of Manchester said the award was “a wonderful example of a fundamental discovery based on scientific curiosity with major practical, social and economic benefits for society.”

Geim and Novoselov will split 10 million Swedish kronor (1.49 million U.S. dollars) in prize money and will receive a medal at a December 10 gala dinner in Stockholm.

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