Sticky tape & a pencil

Tuesday 5 October 2010

So you need fancy electronic data loggers or university analytical machines to do real research these days? Not so – all you need is a pencil and a roll of sellotape® (sticky tape). The Nobel Prize has just been awarded to two scientists working at Manchester University in the U.K. (the very place where I was awarded my  Ph.D.!). Professor Andre Geim ( 1958 - ) and Dr. Konstantin Novoselov (1974 - ) who were both born in Russia were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of graphene. Every IB student will recognise graphene as it is literally one layer of the normal structure of graphite where the carbon atoms are sp2 hybridized and arranged in hexagonal rings in a flat plane (see Covalent structures (1)). The difference is that graphite consists of many of these layers with delocalised electrons from the unhybridized p orbitals able to travel between them which explains why graphite is  a good conductor of electricity. Typically a 1 mm layer of graphite contains about 3 x 106 individual layers of graphene stacked on top of each other.

What Geim and Novoselov were able to do was obtain single layers of graphene which are literally one atom thick and therefore virtually transparent and 2-dimensional. They first published their work in 2004. What is amazing is that they were able to obtain their single layers of graphene by using a roll of sticky tape to pull the layers off the ‘lead’ in a graphite pencil. Graphene has been shown to be extremely strong and a good electrical conductor which means it could have a wide range of practical uses. It is in fact about one hundred times stronger than steel and a better electrical conductor than copper. It is thought that it can replace silicon in transistors and find uses in touch screens and solar cells for example.  This fits in neatly with the sections on nanotechnology and silicon and photovoltaic cells in Option C : Chemistry in industry and technology.

Nottingham University have already produced a video on graphene 

There are several slightly bizarre facts associated with this award. Aged only 36, Dr Novoselov is one of the youngest recipients of a Nobel Prize in recent years. Ten years ago Professor Geim together with Professor Sir Michael Berry from Bristol University were jointly awarded a ‘tongue in cheek’ Ig Nobel Prize. These are given for ‘improbable research’ and they were awarded it for their experiments on levitating frogs using magnetic fields. Finally Professor Geim should perhaps be also awarded the Nobel Prize for modesty. When he learned that he had won the Nobel Prize he stated in an interview with the BBC that,

“In my opinion, there are several categories of Nobel prize winners. There are those who, after getting the Nobel Prize, stop doing anything for the rest of their lives, which is a big disservice for their community.
There is another type of person who thinks that other people think they won the Nobel Prize by accident. So they start working even harder than before."
I am in neither of these categories and will "muddle on as before".

Perhaps the only really bizarre fact is that despite discovering a material that is clearly a ‘chemical’ they were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics not Chemistry – but then, of course, Physics is a minor branch of Chemistry.

Tags: Nobel Prize, graphene, graphite, Option C


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