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Graphene: Nobel Winners’ Thin, Mighty Material Holds Much Promise

October 5, 2010 at 5:51 PM EDT
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Two Russian-born scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on graphene, a form of carbon just one atom thick, but 100 times stronger than steel. The NewsHour's new science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, has the details.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: the Nobel Prize for Physics, which was announced today for two Russian-born scientists. Both are professors at the University of Manchester in England. Their work isolated graphene, a form of carbon only one atom thick, but 100 times stronger than steel.

Miles O’Brien, the NewsHour’s new science correspondent, is here to tell us all about it. And, first, Miles, welcome to the NewsHour team.

MILES O’BRIEN: Jim, it’s a great pleasure and an honor.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Now, tell us what, did these two physicists discover?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, it’s interesting. It sounds so exotic. This stuff is stronger than steel. It’s transparent. It conducts electricity and heat better than copper and could revolutionize electronics, among other things. Where would you find such an exotic material? How about your number two pencil? That’s exactly where it comes from.

The material we’re talking about is just very thin graphite at the end of a Ticonderoga.

JIM LEHRER: And how did these two guys figure it out? How did they get it — how did they — well, what did they do?

(LAUGHTER)

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, it’s interesting. You know, you would think something as exotic and wonderful as this portends to be, they would use some fancy machine, some sort of device that would give them this material shaved down, sort of a nanometer prosciutto slicer on something.

You know what they used? Tape. What happened was, they were working with graphite, trying to figure out how to do this. How do you slice the graphite as thin as an atom? That almost boggles the mind, right? Well, they were trying to clean off the graphite using tape. They threw the tape in the trash.

And one day, they had one of those great accidental, serendipitous eureka moments. They said, let’s look at the tape. They put it under the microscope and realized they were on to something. And so they started doing this. They went back and forth a bunch of times. And each time you do that, it gets a little thinner. And if you keep doing it long enough, it’s the thickness of an atom.

JIM LEHRER: So they knew what they were looking for, right?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. They knew. It was just getting it.

JIM LEHRER: It was an accidental find, but they knew it was there?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. We know carbon is a magical thing. We are made of carbon. Carbon is a pretty magical thing when you think about us for a moment.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: And they knew it was out there. The question was, how do you get to it? How do you get it that thin, a two-dimensional sheet of carbon that would have all these amazing properties?

JIM LEHRER: But why was the — is the — where does the strength come from that — how does it come from the thinness, rather — in other words, the lead from the pencil you held up, that’s not very strong. So, why does…

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, it’s counterintuitive, isn’t it?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: But, when you think about it, if you take it and you layer it up a little bit, say as thick as saran wrap, and imagine putting that saran wrap over a tupperware thing, and then you stuck this pencil on there and you put on top of this pencil an elephant, it would take that elephant to actually break through the saran wrap, because the bonds, the carbon is bonded so tightly and so strongly.

JIM LEHRER: Now, this happened at the University of Manchester, right? These two guys are working on this, correct?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: And when did this happen?

MILES O’BRIEN: This happened — the paper came out in 2004. They actually had a second one in 2005. It was published in the journal “Science.”

Incidentally, it was rejected by the journal “Nature.” I think they have got a little bit of carbon egg on their face today, don’t you think?

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Yes, I would think so. All right, so then, but what’s been done with it since? Between 2004 and now, what has been the next steps that have been taken and what are the steps still to be taken with it?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, there’s a lot of things it can do for us. But one of the big headlines in all of this is that for those of us who are really savvy and familiar with computers, we all know about what is called Moore’s law, which holds that, every two years or so, the power of transistors, the computer oomph that you can put on an integrated circuit, doubles.

Well, there’s been a lot of concern that we’re running — that this law might be retired soon, because we’re running out of space on silicon. Well, this material, this graphene, may be a replacement for silicon and may allow our computers to get even smaller.

I love this little iPod that I carry around, or iPad.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MILES O’BRIEN: Imagine if it were as thin as a sheet of paper and just as capable? That is what potentially graphene could do for us.

JIM LEHRER: Where does graphene actually come from?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, carbon is an element. It’s right up there on the periodic table. And where carbon comes from goes back literally to the big bang.

We’re made of carbon. So is this pencil. Carbon is an absolute fundamental building block of life. It’s so fundamental that it kind of surprises scientists at times at how marvelous it can be.

JIM LEHRER: Now, these two scientists, these two Russian-born scientists, they’re considered quite characters. Tell us what we need to know about them.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, Andre Geim, who is 51 years old, my age — I’m still waiting for my Nobel Prize.

JIM LEHRER: Gotcha.

MILES O’BRIEN: At 51, he is — he is first Nobel Prize winner to have won the spoof award, the Ig Nobel Prize, back in 2000. He likes to play around with electromagnetism.

Guys who are into carbon like electromagnetism because of the superconductivity properties of it. He was able to levitate a frog and won what is called the Ig Nobel Prize for just odd, bizarre science. He has got a good sense of humor. He actually did a paper once. His co-author was his favorite hamster.

Now, Novoselov, Konstantin Novoselov, also — both of them are Russian nationals, by the way. Novoselov is younger and served — he sort of served under Geim. He is the youngest laureate in Nobel physics history since 1973.

And, you know, it’s nice to have guys who are having fun, letting the hamster co-author…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sure.

MILES O’BRIEN: … and levitating frogs on the side. And it’s nice to have guys who are willing to take it with a sense of humor.

JIM LEHRER: And it’s nice to have Miles O’Brien as our new science editor. Thank you very much, Miles. And, again, welcome.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome. Thank you.