The Nobel Prize in physics serves as a signpost for measuring the progress of an idea from theoretical math to an inescapable part of everyone’s lives. It was 42 years from Philip Eduard Anton von Lenard’s Nobel Prize for cathode ray experimentation to regular TV broadcasts from NBC, CBS and ABC; 42 years from the Curies’ award for discovering radiation to the ruins of Hiroshima; and 28 years from Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley’s win for semiconductor research to the release of the personal computer.
Yesterday, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov split the Nobel in Physics for their work on a carbon compound called graphene . Graphene may not mean much to the man on the street now, but experts believe that its amazing mechanical and electrical properties will prove as transformative to coming generations as the television, atomic bomb and silicon chip did in the decades after the Nobel committee first honored the scientists who made those inventions possible.
Graphene is a single-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arrayed in a honeycomb pattern. It is the strongest material ever discovered, yet flexible like rubber. It conducts electricity better than silicon, and resists heat better than diamond. And it allows for physics experiments that would otherwise require miles-long particle accelerators to be performed on a desktop.
“It’s an amazing material with the incredible electronic properties and mechanical strength,” said Paul Sheehan, head of the surface nanoscience and sensors section at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
“It can be made so cheaply, anyone can do it, and it has these amazing properties. The one other thing that helps is that if there’s one material we know about, it’s carbon. That’s the power behind graphene, it has all these superlative properties, and we know how to do a lot with it.”
As an ultra-light but nearly indestructible material, graphene (and graphene composites) could drastically alter the aerospace and automotive industry, said Rodney Ruoff, a professor of engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.
Research has already accelerated to the point where laboratories can mass-produce the material, Ruoff said. Soon companies will be able to produce sheets of graphene hundreds of feet wide; embed it in other materials as a strengthening composite; or create microscopic flakes of it for use as a conductive ink.
With conductivity 100 times greater than silicon and the ability to release virtually no heat, graphene could change the electronics industry, too, Sheehan told TechNewsDaily. Computer chips made from graphene sheets could fit orders of magnitude more transistors into the same space, and thanks to the material's remarkable ability to dissipate heat, graphene chips could be made even smaller than current silicon processors.
Best yet to come
Additionally, since electrons behave as waves in graphene, not as rubber balls as they do in silicon and metals, researchers can use graphene as a platform for observing particle behavior previously consigned to the world of theory, said Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, a professor of physics at MIT.
“Graphene has enabled us to study [physical phenomena] in small-scale experiments, cheap enough to do on your kitchen counter," Jarillo-Herrero said. “It created a whole field – condensed matter quantum physics – that wasn’t there before.”
And that’s just what physicists have discovered in the six years since the initial isolation of graphene. Carbon is one of the most versatile elements in the periodic table, forming the base for diamonds, pencils and all life on Earth. Given that diversity, it is likely that the most transformative uses for graphene have yet to be discovered, Sheehan of the Office of Naval Research said.
“Once you can begin to make it in large scale, and cheaply, that’s when people begin to dream,” he said. “That’s where we are now.”