Materials breakthrough wins Nobel

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Andre Geim (SPL)
Image caption,
Andre Geim is based at the University of Manchester in the UK

Two scientists have shared this year's Nobel Prize for Physics for their "groundbreaking" work on a material with amazing properties.

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, both at Manchester University, UK, took the prize for research on graphene.

Graphene is a flat sheet of carbon just one atom thick; it is almost completely transparent, but also extremely strong and a good conductor of electricity.

Its unique properties mean it could have a wide array of practical uses.

The researchers, along with several collaborators, were the first to isolate the layers of carbon from the material graphite, which is used in pencil "lead".

The breakthrough could lead to the manufacture of innovative electronics, including faster computers, according to the Nobel Prize Foundation.

"I'm fine, I slept well. I didn't expect the Nobel Prize this year," said Professor Geim.

He was talking over a telephone line to journalists assembled at a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

Prof Geim said his plans for the day would not change - he said he would go back to work and carry on with his research papers.

"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," he said.

"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."

He said that he was in neither of these categories and would "muddle on as before".

Between the sheets

Prof Geim, 51, is a Dutch national while Dr Novoselov, 36, holds British and Russian citizenship. Both are natives of Russia and started their careers in physics there.

The Nobels are valued at 10m Swedish kronor (£900,000; 1m euros; $1.5m).

They first worked together in the Netherlands before moving to the UK. They were based at the University of Manchester when they published their groundbreaking research paper on graphene in October 2004.

Dr Novoselov is among the youngest winners of a prize that normally goes to scientists with decades of experience.

Graphene is a form of carbon. It is a flat layer of carbon atoms tightly packed into a two-dimensional honeycomb arrangement.

Because it is so thin, it is also practically transparent. As a conductor of electricity it performs as well as copper, and as a conductor of heat it outperforms all other known materials.

The unusual electronic, mechanical and chemical properties of graphene at the molecular scale promise ultra-fast transistors for electronics.

Some scientists have predicted that graphene could one day replace silicon - which is the current material of choice for transistors.

It could also yield incredibly strong, flexible and stable materials and find applications in transparent touch screens or solar cells.

Geim and Novoselov first isolated fine sheets of graphene from the graphite which is widely used in pencils.

A layer of graphite 1mm thick actually consists of three million layers of graphene stacked on top of one another.

Levitating frogs

The layers are weakly held together and are therefore fairly simple to tear off and separate.

The researchers used ordinary sticky tape to rip off thin flakes from a piece of graphite.

Then they attached the flakes to a silicon plate and used a microscope to identify the thin layers of graphene among larger fragments of graphite and carbon scraps.

Professor Martin Rees, president of the UK's Royal Society commented: "It would be hard to envisage better exemplars of the value of enabling outstanding individuals to pursue 'open-ended' research projects whose outcome is unpredictable.

In an apparent reference to the threatened cuts to UK science funding, he added: "There are surely important lessons to be drawn by the government from the Nobel Committee's decision.

"The UK must sustain our science at a competitive level in a world where talent is mobile and other countries are advancing fast."

On Monday, the Nobel Foundation announced that British scientist Robert Edwards, the man who devised the fertility treatment IVF, had been awarded this year's prize for medicine.

Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, said, "We're delighted to see two UK-based physicists take the prize.

"Following yesterday's win for Prof Edwards, there could be no clearer sign of just how much the UK punches above its international weight in a very competitive scientific world."

Ten years ago, Prof Geim and Prof Sir Michael Berry from the University of Bristol were jointly awarded an Ig Nobel prize for their experiments using magnetic fields to levitate frogs.

These tongue-in-cheek awards for "improbable research" have become almost as famous as the real Nobels.

The Nobel prizes also cover chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and economics (more properly called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize). Laureates also receive a medal and a diploma.