How many of you wait eagerly for Nobel Prize announcements? How many of you think about their impact on our lives and work? Honestly? I have to confess, I am probably with you, in glancing at headlines about the prizes and moving on, except perhaps for the Peace Prize which generally creates some global debate and reaction. However, this year I am incredibly excited about the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics! Why? The discovery for which the prize was awarded has the potential to radically change our world.
University of Manchester physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov shared the prize for their ground-breaking work on graphene, a single-atom-thick sheet of carbon, consisting of carbon atoms held together in a honeycomb structure. Graphene boasts extraordinary properties that could transform electronics, vehicles, aerospace, food packaging and potentially any other industry you care to name.
This wonder material is the strongest material ever discovered, yet flexible, extraordinarily light and transparent. It can be embedded into other materials such as epoxy or plastic to make very light yet incredibly strong composite materials. Graphene’s mechanical properties could dramatically change the designs and materials used in industries such as aerospace and automotive, with huge positive effects on fuel consumption and emissions if vehicles and aeroplanes become lighter.
But it does not stop there. Graphene offers electrical conductivity 100 times greater than silicon, while giving off barely any heat, suggesting the potential for radical changes in computer chips and integrated circuits, which could become orders of magnitude smaller and more powerful. With the spread of electronic components into every aspect of our lives, graphene could revolutionize a vast range of items from computers to TVs and touchscreens (building also on its flexible properties) to sensors to lighting to appliances and more.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences has also found that sheets of graphene oxide are highly effective at killing bacteria such as Escherichia coli, which means graphene could be useful in applications such as hygiene products or food packaging.
And that’s just what scientists have found in the six years since Geim and Novoselov isolated the first wafer of carbon one atom thick in 2004 – using just sticky tape to strip layers off a carbon block. But there will be much more to come, as graphene also offers researchers the possibility for desktop experiments that otherwise would require enormous particle accelerators, because its electrons behave like waves rather than rubber balls as in silicon and metals. It has created a whole new field of condensed matter quantum physics that simply did not exist before, and could yield future exciting discoveries.
While Nobel award-winning discoveries normally take several decades to move from laboratory to becoming an integral part of our lives, there are several indicators that hopefully will mean graphene will be with us sooner rather than later. First, carbon is perhaps the most critical building block of life, present in all known life forms (including us) – and as such is abundant: The 15th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust and the 4th most abundant in the universe. Graphite from which graphene is made is one of the most common allotropes of carbon. Currently the largest deposits of natural graphite have been identified in China, India, Mexico and the Czech Republic.
Second, it is cheap and relatively easy to produce – at a minimum a block of graphite and some sticky tape! And you do not need a lot of graphite to make graphene – there are about 3 million sheets of graphene in a millimetre-thick layer of graphite. Laboratories are already at the point where they can start to mass-produce the material, and there is potential for it to be commercialized to allow much larger sheets to be produced. Third, carbon and graphite are stable and versatile in combination with other elements, suggesting that by extension there are many possible ways to tap into graphene’s unique properties.
Finally, with a material this transformative which has the potential to offer radical new ways of designing and building, using resources more sustainably and changing how we live, can we afford to wait? If I was an aerospace manufacturer I would certainly be figuring out how to accelerate commercial production as fast as possible since the returns to customers of much lighter satellites or planes would be phenomenal. And if I was a consumer electronics manufacturer or integrated circuit maker, I would be making some very rapid investments. How about your business? How could graphene change your world?