Nobel Prize honors super-strong, super-thin carbon
NEW YORK—It is the thinnest and strongest material known to mankind -- no thicker than a single atom and 100 times tougher than steel. Could graphene be the next plastic? Maybe so, says one of two scientists who won a Nobel Prize on Tuesday for isolating and studying it.
Faster computers, lighter airplanes, transparent touch screens -- the list of potential uses runs on. Some scientists say we can't even imagine what kinds of products might be possible with the substance, which hides in ordinary pencil lead and first was extracted using a piece of Scotch tape.
Two Russian-born researchers shared the physics Nobel for their groundbreaking experiments with graphene, which is a sheet of carbon atoms joined together in a pattern that resembles chicken wire.
Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester in England used Scotch tape to rip off flakes of graphene from a chunk of graphite, the stuff of pencil leads. That achievement, reported just six years ago, opened the door to studying what scientists say should be a versatile building block for electronics and strong materials.
"It has all the potential to change your life in the same way that plastics did," Geim, 51, a Dutch citizen, told The Associated Press. "It is really exciting."
Michael Strano, a chemist at MIT, said trying to predict its uses would be "folly ... We can't even imagine the uses we're going to find."
But he and others have some ideas. Graphene's electrical properties mean it might make for faster transistors, key components of electronic circuits, and so lead to better computers, the Nobel committee says. As a single layer of carbon atoms it's tiny, which could pay off in more powerful cell phones, several scientists said.
And since it's practically transparent, it could lead to see-through touch screens and maybe solar cells, the committee says. It might also pay off for big TV screens.
Its tremendous strength could produce new composite materials that are super-strong and lightweight, for use in building airplanes, cars and satellites, the committee says.
So why aren't pencil leads super strong, if they contain graphene? Breaking a lead generally involves a shearing off between graphene sheets rather than breaking the sheets themselves, explained James Tour of Rice University. And while a person can tear up a single sheet of graphene, it's still stronger than a one-atom-thick sheet of anything else.
"There's nothing stronger," Tour said.
Graphene has not made its mark in ordinary consumer products yet, although some prototype electronic display screens and composite materials have been created, Strano said.
Lots of scientists are studying it, in some cases to learn about basic physics, Strano said. Researchers are still trying to find a practical way to make large quantities of pure graphene, something more amenable to large-scale use than the Scotch-tape approach, he said.
"The field is still very new," he said, and the awarding of the $1.5 million prize to Geim and Novoselov is "absolutely marvelous."
Joseph Stroscio, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said he had thought it would take a few more years of scientific appraisal before graphene would win a Nobel. But its potential applications and the brand-new behavior it presents for basic physics have drawn strong interest since the 2004 breakthrough, and the prize is well-deserved, he said.
It might take five or 10 years before graphene shows up in products like cell phones, he said.
Novoselov, 36, is the youngest Nobel winner since 1973 of a prize that normally goes to scientists with decades of experience. He holds both British and Russian citizenship.
Paolo Radaelli, a physics professor at the University of Oxford, marveled at the simple methods the winners used.
"In this age of complexity, with machines like the super collider, they managed to get the Nobel using Scotch tape," Radaelli said.
The 2010 Nobel Prize announcements began Monday with the medicine award going to British researcher Robert Edwards, 85, for in vitro fertilization. Unlike the physics prize, which came just six years after the graphene breakthrough, the medicine award came more than 30 years after the birth of the first test tube baby. The prize committee ignores the provision in Alfred Nobel's will that the award honor discoveries made the preceding year because it takes time to measure the benefits.
The chemistry prize will be announced Wednesday, followed by literature on Thursday, the peace prize on Friday and economics on Monday, Oct. 11.
The awards were created by Nobel, a Swedish industrialist, and first given in 1901. The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.
There have been no Americans among this year's Nobel laureates so far, but that could change Wednesday with chemistry, a prize that has been dominated by U.S. scientists. Only once in the past decade, in 2007, did the prize not include a U.S. citizen.
Harvard researchers George Whitesides and Charles Lieber frequently figure in Nobel speculation. So do Scottish chemist Sir Fraser Stoddart at Northwestern University and Japan's Sumio Iijima, who discovered carbon nanotubes in 1991.
Thomson Reuters, which analyzes high-impact scientific papers to make predictions, suggested Stanford University biochemistry professor Patrick Brown for his work on DNA microarrays. It said Japan's Susumu Kitagawa and American Omar Yaghi could also share the award for designing porous metal-organic frameworks.
Karl Ritter reported from Stockholm. Associated Press writers Malin Rising and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.