October 6, 2010 11:25 am

Nobel Prize winning substance has local connection

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Two Russian expatriates working in Britain have been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of graphene, a two-dimensional layer of carbon molecules whose unexpected properties promise to revolutionize the electronics industry, the production of lightweight materials and a host of other applications.

And the discovery has a Vancouver connection: One of the first scientific papers to predict graphene’s unique properties was published by University of B.C. physics professor Gordon Semenoff in 1984.

At a time when multibillion-dollar particle accelerators and orbiting telescopes are often deemed necessary for major breakthroughs in physics, Andre Geim, 51, and Konstantin Novoselov, 36, both of the University of Manchester, laid the foundation for their discovery with an ordinary piece of Scotch tape.

The pair, who will share the $1.5-million award, used the tape to peel successive layers of carbon from a small chunk of graphite similar to that found in a pencil, eventually obtaining a layer a single atom thick that they dubbed graphene.

That’s when the real work began, Geim said at a news conference organized by the Nobel committee.

Researchers had thought such two-dimensional materials would be very unstable, but graphene confounded their expectations. It is 100 times stronger than steel and conducts heat and electricity better than copper. Unlike pencil lead, graphene is transparent, and it stretches up to 20 per cent when stressed.

“For the past five or six years, we have been intensively studying the properties of these materials, trying to figure out what they can be useful for,” Geim said.

“I would compare this situation with the one 100 years ago when people discovered polymers. It took some time before polymers went into use in plastics and became so important in our lives.”

But it may not take nearly as long with graphene, said H. Frederick Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics. “Within a year or so of Andre Geim’s and Konstantin Novoselov’s first work with graphene, it became the subject of dozens of sessions at large scientific meetings. Many scientists, seeing a rich research opportunity, stopped what they were doing and turned to graphene.”

Among potential applications cited by the Swedish Nobel committee are replacing carbon fibres in composite materials to produce even lighter aircraft and satellites and replacing silicon in transistors to produce faster and more efficient electronic devices.

The material could be embedded in conventional plastics to enable them to conduct electricity, and because it is transparent, it could be used to produce touch screens for computers and telephones.

One of the scientists most excited about the potential of graphene is Semenoff.

In 1984, a newly arrived professor at UBC, Semenoff wrote a scientific paper predicting the unique properties a thin layer of graphite might have.

“My paper was entirely theoretical,” Semenoff said in an interview Tuesday.

“I was theorizing: What if this substance existed? Look how interesting it would be.”

Geim and Novoselov have cited Semenoff’s 1984 paper in a number of their studies and Semenoff said he’s met the two several times.

Semenoff said he’s not sure how much credit he can really take for graphene’s discovery. For example, he’s pretty sure Geim and Novoselov only came across his paper after they discovered graphene, not before.

But he said he’s just excited someone found out how to make such an amazing substance.

“I’m really tickled it has these nice properties I predicted many years ago,” he said. “It’s the classic case of a sleeper paper.”

Los Angeles Times

With files from Chad Skelton, Vancouver Sun

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