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The wonder stuff: Nobel Prize for EPSRC graphene pioneers

Issue date:
05 October 2010
Type:
Case study 
Physical sciences
Photo of Professor Andre Geim and Dr Konstantin Novoselov

Professor Andre Geim and Dr Konstantin Novoselov

EPSRC-funded Manchester University scientists Professor Andre Geim and Dr Konstantin Novoselov have been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their ground-breaking work with the wonder-material graphene, which they discovered in 2004.

The original discovery and subsequent research into graphene was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which has supported Professor Geim (pictured far left) and Dr Novoselov (right) for ten years.

Graphene consists of a sheet of carbon atoms connected in a honeycomb-like structure. At just one atom thick, no material is thinner than graphene. It's also the strongest ever measured - harder than diamond and 200 times tougher than steel - yet it can be stretched by a quarter of its length, making it potentially suitable for a host of commercial applications.

What's more, thanks to its extraordinary properties as an electrical and thermal conductor, and almost complete optical transparency, graphene could potentially revolutionise the semi-conductor industry by replacing silicon. It could even lead to breakthroughs in fundamental quantum physics research.

1
at just one atom thick, no material is thinner than graphene - it is a million times thinner than a piece of paper.

Professor Geim says: "Imagine a machine that can test the same physics that scientists test in, say, CERN, but is small enough to stand on a tabletop. Graphene allows this to happen."

Pencil power

Russian-born Professor Geim, 51, has built a close working relationship with Dr Novoselov, who holds dual Russian and British citizenship and who, at 36, is one of the youngest-ever Nobel laureates.

Geim recalls the momentous days back in 2004 when he and his team, including Dr Novoselov, then an EPSRC-funded post-doctoral student, successfully extracted individual sheets of carbon atoms from bulk graphite - the material pencils are made from. True to their reputation for innovative thinking, they used sophisticated sticky tape to strip the graphite down to the atomic level.

200
times tougher than steel. Graphene is the strongest material ever measured.

Professor Geim says: "Our objective was simply to see how thin materials could be. At the time, it was presumed materials one atom thick couldn't exist. But our discovery of graphene proved this supposition wasn't correct."

Global phenomenon

News of graphene's discovery sparked a host of global research activity. In 2009, the website ScienceWatch.com revealed Dr Novoselov's work on graphene as the most cited of the decade, with 33 papers quoted 2,895 times; and in October 2010 The Times placed Andre Geim at number nine in its Top 100 list of People That Matter in Science.

All this from two scientists "whose playfulness is one of their trademarks", according to the Nobel committee. Dr Novoselov says: "We devote ten per cent of our time to so-called 'Friday evening' experiments. I just do all kinds of crazy things that probably won't pan out, but if they do... This graphene business started as a Friday evening experiment."

100 million
the speed in metres per second that electrons travel at as they pass through graphene, behaving as if they have no mass.

Professor David Delpy, EPSRC's chief executive, says: "We remain committed to funding multidisciplinary research into graphene, and have an active investment portfolio of over £14 million, which includes a £5 million Science and Innovation Award in 2009 to enable Professor Geim's team to continue its research at Manchester University.

"This funding is helping the UK retain the key academic and research staff behind the discovery of graphene - who might otherwise have been lost to foreign institutions. It has also attracted leading scientists from overseas, keen to take part in cutting-edge research into this remarkable material.

"Professor Geim and Dr Novoselov's work represents an enormously important scientific development with a huge range of applications; it will no doubt bring significant benefits to the UK economy."

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