What they found under their microscopes was Graphene, a new material that's got the scientific community more jittery than kids going to Disneyland.
Its creators have hailed it 'as versatile as all the plastics put together.' The list of potential uses by various people are huge and range from exciting and futuristic to dull but kind of useful. From paper thin phones you can roll behind your ear, super computers, wallpaper-thin lighting panels and the next generation of aircraft to super sensitive gas sensors, 100% air-tight coatings, and an alternative to carbon-fibre bodywork, Graphene is being touted to be as defining to our age as bronze was to stone-age men. It can even be used to distil alcohol.
Consists of a sheet of carbon atoms connected in a honeycomb-like structure, Graphene measures just one atom thick, therefore giving it just two dimensions. It's the first 2D material discovered, so thin three million sheets of the stuff piled on top of each other equates to only one millimetre. Essentially ultra-thin graphite; the lead you get in your pencil. It's made up of many millions of layers held together very weakly, which lets you scribble and draw. School books across the world are probably covered in Graphene, hidden in bad handwriting and crude drawings.
The new material was discovered in 2004 by Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov, who found the material by using sophisticated sticky tape to strip the graphite down to the atomic level. Their work won them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 and since then the hubbub from the scientific community has been intense. There have been over 3,000 research papers on the subject and 400 Graphene-related patent applications, and in 2009 Sciencewatch.com revealed Novoselov's work as the most cited paper of the decade.
So why did it take until 2004 to realise graphite could be turned into potential scientific gold? Essentially because no one was really looking for it. It was assumed materials only an atom thick couldn't exist, and any attempts before on other materials to create an atom thin layer failed. The discovery of Graphene has changed a lot of the record books.
The list accolades is huge. Obviously as the only 2D material, it has the record as the thinnest material, but it's also the toughest, the stiffest and yet can stretch 20% without breaking, and more conductive than copper, and impermeable to even helium (the smallest gas atoms) passing through it. Columbia University's research claimed its research confirmed that Graphene was 200 times stronger than steel, so strong in fact, 'It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of Graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap [cling film].' It's even got the record for most records.
Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan, one of the Graphene researchers at Manchester University, says the discovery has received so much publicity "Primarily because it is a unique material with unique properties associated with its 2D nature. It has superlative properties in many instances, such as electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, tensile strength, stretchability and flexibility, transparency. Even more exciting is the fact that one material combines all of these properties. And also, naturally, the UK press and scientific community is excited because Graphene is a UK creation."
And as this was a British discovery, the UK had a head start in research that it hopes to maintain. Earlier in the year the Government pledged £50 Million to establish a Graphene research and technology hub. Manchester University, the material's spiritual birthplace where Geim and Novoselov conducted their research, has already been visited by the likes of Nick Clegg and some of the royals on account of the scientific interest it's garnered. And it will also be the base for this hub, centred around a national institute of Graphene research and commercialisation activities.
"The most important impact will be the synergy it will create between university researchers and industrial partners through the Graphene innovation hub," says Aravind. "It will provide a direct route for taking Graphene-based products from university labs to the marketplace." The money is being funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Its head, Professor David Delpy, proclaimed 'The race to be the first country to produce commercial products is well and truly on.'
The first steps of that race have already been taken by the Korean researchers. In 2010 they bonded a pure sheet of Graphene to copper foil and plastic by pressing them together through rollers them, creating a see through touch-screen sheet. As the video shows, it's not an all singing, all dancing foldable smart phone, but for scientists to go from sticky taping pencils to this in less than ten years shows the remarkable speed at which things are progressing. Computers, the internet and mobile phones all took decades to go from novelty to actually useful. That £50 Million looks pretty tiny compared to the £195 Million South Korea is investing into R&D, but UK researchers are hoping for an EU grant to give the industry a shot in the arm. The money would come from the EU's Commission's 10-year, 1 billion euro Future Emerging Trends (FET) Flagship, aimed at ambitious large-scale research initiatives with an aim to 'achieve a visionary goal,' but we won't know until next year if the money has been secured.
Despite the scramble for research money, Aravind says the much of the work on Graphene has been done through 'extensive collaboration' within the UK and abroad. "Graphene research has benefited greatly from the collaborative atmosphere rather than from a cut-throat race to the top."
Right now the two biggest areas being looked into for Graphene are touch screens and computer processing. Those of you out there who've dropped your touch screen, chances are it smashed in a pretty bad way. Indium tin oxide is the transparent, electrical current carrying material used in such devices, but is expensive, rare and shatters easily. The possibility of Graphene touch screens could bring the price down, and mean the clumsy among you may finally have that invincible touch screen you always wanted. Samsung have been big investors in this field, and hope to have a range of products out in the next five years.
The other area Graphene has been taking strides is in computer processing. IBM developed a transistor using Graphene which achieved a record breaking speed of 100GHz, which compared to the fastest alternative silicon of 40GHz could explain why some researchers are saying silicon could be replaced. But they may be getting ahead of themselves. IBM themselves, despite the super-fast results, admitted it was ‘difficult to imagine’ replacing silicon in computer chips. "There have been millions of person-years and trillions of dollars put into the development of silicon electronics," one scientist from Rice University said. He compared it to 'a 10-year-old to be a concert pianist because we've been giving him piano lessons for the last six years.'
Aside from being the child with piano lessons, Graphene had a problem with being too conductive; Graphene transistors tightly-packed in a computer chip leak too much current and cause it to melt. Although that problem may have been solved by Geim and Novoselov. Their idea was to aligning the Graphene atoms vertically rather than laterally, creating a "vertical field-effect tunnelling transistor," which sounds very clever.
Graphene seems to have its green credentials in order too. It's source material, graphite, is a fairly plentiful mineral mostly mined in Chile, India and Canada. The Korean touchscreen is a good indicator of the green potential; replacing the tin oxide in a touch-screen means less rare materials are used, and the process of refining Graphene it is being improved all the time. One of the researchers explained, 'The Graphene production needs just a tiny amount of carbon sources without any rare materials, and the copper substrate is recyclable, so it is much more environmentally friendly than ITO [indium tin oxides] production.' Researchers at Rice University have even developed a method of synthesising it from table sugar, and its ability to store energy could double the quality of batteries could improve the effectiveness of solar & wind farms tremendously.
So far you've read a lot about the hype, the money, the research. But surely it can't live up to all these expectations? "Indeed, we expect it to. Graphene is unlike any other material we have encountered before. The route to realising the potential of graphene is quite challenging," explains "But remember that Graphene was first made only in 2004, so in about seven years, we have come a very long way, compared to for example the amount of progress that was made in silicon-electronics in its first seven years."
Does it have weaknesses? "Of course it does! And often, the strength and weakness are two sides of the same coin. For example, it is more than 97% transparent, which is a strength for using as a transparent conducting coating, but a weakness if you want to use it for absorbing light in a photodetector," he explains, but adds that these weaknesses can be resolved with 'smart engineering solutions.'
So there you have it. The potential is there, the money is coming in, and scientists worldwide are putting time and effort into making Graphene the Bakelite and carbon-fibre of tomorrow. But many of the great material discoveries of the last century took decades to catch on and become commercial successes. So it might be a while before foldable phones and tabletop super-computers become a reality (general consensus is 3-5 years for the first products), but if nothing else it will keep your iPhone safe and help make your vodka stronger.
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