Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pencil Lead and Scotch Tape: The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics

In a world of 3 visible dimensions (up-down, left-right, back-forth), it's hard to conceive a material that is two dimensional.   And yet, that's exactly what led two Russian born scientists named Andre Geim (51) and Konstantin Novoselov (36) to this year's Nobel Prize in physics!  What they did was simple enough in theory:  they experimented on a layer of carbon, just one atom thick.  The layer had no depth, and so, it was only 2-D!  Even more interesting was just how they first succeeded in creating flakes of graphene: they peeled off piles of graphite in pencil lead using scotch tape!
Andre Geim (51) and Konstantin Novoselov (36) 

The fact that the layer of carbon - officially called 'graphene' - is 2-D, wasn't, of course, the reason these scientists received the Nobel.  The properties of graphene are astounding.  For one, it is incredibly strong.  As in, it is the thinnest, strongest material known to mankind.  If you want that in numbers, it is 100 times stronger than steel!  Experts say a sheet of graphene stretched over a coffee cup could support the weight of a truck bearing down on a pencil point. Not only is it strong, it's completely transparent and is the best known conductor of heat and electricity. 

No one really knows the extent of graphene's potential applications, but many expect it to replace silicon in the near future for making integrated circuits, (small chips with millions of transistors that are the backbone of all modern telecommunications).  Graphene transistors are expected to become much faster than today's silicon ones and yield more efficient computers.  It can also find applications in construction, given how strong it is.  No one knows for sure!

Graphene structure
 The actual structure of graphene is a honeycomb lattice, that is, the carbon atoms are arranged in a way that resembles a beehive.  You may be wondering how graphene has such phenomenal properties when the large amounts of carbon that we see around us all the time don't seem to.  The thing is, materials act drastically different on a really, really small scale (called the 'nano scale, which is of the order 10^-9 metres), and when they're arranged in certain patterns.  It's one of the beautiful things about the physics at a very small level, or, 'quantum physics'.

In the news:

Detailed description:
Wikipedia's Graphene Article

Images from The Times of India and Wikipedia.


  1. Interesting... Wish I had a science teacher like you when I was in school. Even I'd probably have taken some interest in the subject. :)

  2. That means a lot to me, thanks! I'd love to be a teacher who can get her students to enjoy her subject!