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Physicists in Britain win Nobel

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.

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.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Konstantin Novoselov as Konstatin.


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 highly 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% 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.”

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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.”

Their discovery “started a race, almost a stampede, into measuring all its properties,” said physicist Joe Stroscio of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. “At each physics meeting now, there are hundreds and hundreds of papers describing its properties.”

Among potential applications cited by the Swedish Nobel committee are replacing carbon fibers 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.

Graphene is particularly appealing, said physicist Allan MacDonald of the University of Texas at Austin, because “when you confine electrons to a plane, their behavior is quite different.” Physicists had previously been able to demonstrate this using materials 20 to 40 atoms thick, but it required cooling the materials to very low temperatures. Graphene’s “practical properties are relevant at room temperature,” MacDonald said.

In graphene, Stroscio noted, “electrons behave as if they have zero mass — they behave more like light waves than electrons.” That means electrons travel faster in graphene than in other materials, opening the door to faster electronics.

Both Geim and Novoselov were born in Russia. They met in the Netherlands when Novoselov was a graduate student in Geim’s laboratory. Both are now professors at Manchester. Geim is a Dutch citizen and Novoselov has dual Russian-British citizenship.

The Nobel committee said Novoselov was the youngest physics winner since 1973, when British physicist Brian D. Josephson shared the Nobel for his studies of how an electrical current can tunnel through a barrier, a phenomenon now known as the Josephson effect. The youngest physics winner ever was Lawrence Bragg, who was 25 when he shared the 1915 Nobel with his father, William.

In an unusual gesture, the Nobel committee cited high jinks in the researchers’ lab. “Playfulness is one of their hallmarks. One always learns something in the process, and, who knows, you may even hit the jackpot,” the committee said.

One example of that playfulness is Geim’s 2000 receipt of the IgNobel Prize, a tongue-in-cheek award sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, for levitating a frog.

“I think I am the first person who won both,” Geim said. “I’m very proud of these prizes.”

Novoselov told Reuters he was eager to move on to other research topics. “I’ve had a bit too much graphene in my life — I’ve been working on it for seven years now — so we want to explore a little bit away from this area,” he said.

thomas.maugh@latimes.com


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