Friday 29 October 2010

Graphene Just Won Two Guys the Nobel. So What the Hell Is It?

Today, two professors won the Nobel prize for physics "for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene." The Nobel is the Olympic gold of science. But what is graphene, and why did it earn these guys over a million bucks?

Some Nobels in physics are (relatively) straightforward. In 1935, James Chadwick discovered the neutron. A huge deal, of course, but something you can understand by 11th grade. But today's award—presented to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov—is for a two-dimensional material. A what? Not exactly high school stuff. So let's break it down.

Graphene is, put most simply, carbon atoms—the same stuff in your pencil—arranged in linked hexagons. (Fun fact: the pair started their work with graphene by peeling off layers of actual pencil lead with scotch tape). This doesn't sound like anything special, except for the fact that, as Geim himself explains, "Everything in our three-dimensional world has a width, length and height. That was what we thought, at least." Geim and Novoselov's work expands our understanding of materials that don't have any of these dimensional properties, because they are only one atom thick. They are lacking an entire dimension.

It's hard to imagine—but that's sort of the point. The duo's work is on the frontier of an entire class of stuff that we're only just now starting to be able to conceive of. Geim himself says he has no idea the extent to which a material such as graphene could be useful. But we do know that it is super cool. Despite (or rather, because of) its measly two-dimensionality, graphene is the strongest and thinnest substance in the known universe, can be stretched like rubber, and is impregnable by liquid or gas. It also conducts electricity, allowing it to (someday) beat the pants off the copper and silicon we use in, well, pretty much everything. Still unimpressed? A layer of graphene could hold up a truck atop a pencil. You don't look so great now, do you, neutron.

So what's next? "Optimists say we are entering a carbon age. Even pessimists argue only that the impact will be somewhat less," says Geim, who is, naturally, excited: "I hope that graphene and other two-dimensional crystals will change everyday life as plastics did for humanity." So we'll have to wait and see, but still—job well done, gents