LOS ANGELES – Two Russian expatriates working in Britain have been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of graphene, a two-dimensional layer of carbon molecules whose unexpected properties promise to revolutionize the electronics industry, the production of lightweight materials and a host of other applications.
At a time when multibillion-dollar particle accelerators and orbiting telescopes are often deemed necessary for major breakthroughs in physics, Andre Geim, 51, and Konstatin Novoselov, 36, both of the University of Manchester, laid the foundation for their discovery with an ordinary piece of Scotch tape.
The pair, who will share the $1.5-million award, used the tape to peel successive layers of carbon from a small chunk of graphite similar to that found in a pencil, eventually obtaining a layer a single atom thick that they dubbed graphene.
Researchers had thought such two-dimensional materials would be very unstable, but graphene confounded their expectations. It is 100 times stronger than steel and conducts heat and electricity better than copper.
“For the past five or six years, we have been intensively studying the properties of these materials, trying to figure out what they can be useful for,” Geim said. “I would compare this situation with the one 100 years ago when people discovered polymers. It took some time before polymers went into use in plastics and became so important in our lives.”
But it may not take nearly as long with graphene, said H. Frederick Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics. “Within a year or so of Andre Geim’s and Konstantin Novoselov’s first work with graphene, it became the subject of dozens of sessions at large scientific meetings. Many scientists, seeing a rich research opportunity, stopped what they were doing and turned to graphene.”
Among potential applications cited by the Swedish Nobel committee are replacing carbon fibers in composite materials to produce even lighter aircraft and satellites and replacing silicon in transistors to produce faster and more efficient electronic devices. The material could be embedded in conventional plastics to enable them to conduct electricity, and because it is transparent, it could be used to produce touch screens for computers and telephones.
Both researchers were born in Russia. They met in the Netherlands when Novoselev was a graduate student in Geim’s laboratory. Both are now professors at Manchester.