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The big, little substance graphene

This year’s Nobel Prize for Physics went to two scientists at the University of Manchester, England — Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov — who developed graphene, an incredibly thin, incredibly strong sheet of carbon that promises to revolutionize computing, conducting, manufacturing, perhaps life as we know it. In the distant future, it could be used to make cars, planes and satellites. In the short term, flexible touch screens and faster transistors are more likely.

As the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences put it in announcing the prize, “Carbon, the basis of all known life on earth, has surprised us once again.”

The scientists, who were known for having creative experimentation sessions, discovered the substance by placing adhesive tape on a piece of graphite, like that used in pencils, and pulling off a single layer of cells.

The ideal crystalline structure of graphene is a hexagonal grid. Photo: AlexanderAlUS

But why is it so special? Here are a few things you might need to know.

Graphene is two dimensional. The material is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a dense honeycomb lattice structure, resulting in a very thin but extremely strong material. As Geim told Nature, “with one gram of graphene you can cover several football pitches (in Manchester, you know, we measure surface area in football pitches).” It is so dense that not even helium, the smallest gas atom, can pass through it.

It’s so thin, it’s virtually transparent. Graphene may have a future in touch screens, light panels and solar cells. When mixed with plastic, it creates a super strong, flexible material that conducts electricity while simultaneously increasing heat resistance.

It could replace silicon. Graphene can be either a conductor or a semi-conductor, depending on its shape. Because electrons encounter little resistance as they flow across the lattice structure of graphene, they move more quickly than through silicon, opening up the possibility for faster computing, and smaller electronic components.

Not only is graphene strong, it can be made to spin faster than any other object. Scientists at the University of Maryland in College Park developed a spinning graphene disk that rotates more than 60 million times per minute. Because of its super-strength, scientists theorize this is a mere one-thousandth of the speed that  graphene can obtain while remaining stable.

Scientists think graphene can also be used to hold microscopic and nanoscopic objects in place under an electron microscope — like DNA nanoparticles — the same way glass slides hold specimens under those implements used in, for example, biology class.

It might have surprising health benefits. Chinese scientists have found that water-based dispersible graphene derivatives can inhibit the growth of E. coli. This means the material could be used to make paper for food-packaging or bandages, or incorporated into textiles that are highly resistant to bacteria. Adding graphene oxide, as Korean scientists have found, makes it even more effective.