Two receive Nobel physics prize

Used Scotch tape to isolate strong form of carbon

The work of Andre Geim (left) and Konstantin Novoselov could lead to new superstrong and lightweight materials. The work of Andre Geim (left) and Konstantin Novoselov could lead to new superstrong and lightweight materials. (Jon Super/Associated Press)
By Karl Ritter
Associated Press / October 6, 2010

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STOCKHOLM — Two Russian-born scientists shared the Nobel Prize in physics yesterday for groundbreaking experiments with the strongest and thinnest material known to mankind, a potential building block for faster computers and lighter airplanes and satellites.

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, University of Manchester professors, used Scotch tape to isolate graphene, a form of carbon only one atom thick but more than 100 times stronger than steel, and showed it has exceptional properties, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Experiments with graphene could lead to the development of new superstrong and lightweight materials with which to make satellites, aircraft, and cars, the academy said in announcing the $1.5 million award.

The unique properties of the transparent material could also spur the development of innovative electronics, including transparent touch screens, more efficient computers, and solar cells, although no commercial products have been created yet.

“It has all the potential to change your life in the same way that plastics did,’’ Geim said yesterday. “It is really exciting.’’

Geim, 51, is a Dutch national, while Novoselov, 36, holds both British and Russian citizenship. Both started their careers in physics in Russia. They first worked together in the Netherlands before moving to Britain, where they reported isolating graphene in 2004.

Novoselov is the youngest recipient since 1973 of a prize that normally goes to scientists with decades of experience. The youngest Nobel laureate to date is Lawrence Bragg, who was 25 when he shared the physics award with his father, William Bragg, in 1915.

“It’s a shock,’’ Novoselov said. “I started my day chatting over Skype over new developments — it was quite unexpected.’’

Geim said he did not expect to be awarded the prize this year either and had forgotten that it was Nobel time when the prize committee called him from Stockholm.

The two scientists used simple Scotch tape as a crucial tool in their experiments, peeling off thin flakes of graphene from a piece of graphite, the stuff of pencil leads.

“It’s a humble technique, but the hard work came later,’’ Geim said.

Paolo Radaelli, a physics professor at the University of Oxford, marveled at the simple methods the recipients used.

“In this age of complexity, with machines like the supercollider, they managed to get the Nobel using Scotch tape,’’ Radaelli said.

Last year, Geim won the prestigious Korber European Science Award for the discovery, the University of Manchester said. He also won the “Ig nobel’’ prize in 2000 for making a frog levitate in a magnetic field. That award is handed out by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine for silly-sounding scientific discoveries that often have surprisingly practical applications.

Phillip F. Schewe, spokesman for the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Md., said the Nobel to Geim and Novoselov was well deserved.

“Graphene is the thinnest material in the world. It’s one of the strongest, maybe the strongest material in the world. It’s an excellent conductor. Electrons move through it very quickly, which is something you want to make circuits out of,’’ Schewe said.

He said graphene may be a good material for making integrated circuits, small chips with millions of transistors that are the backbone of all modern telecommunications.

It also has potential uses in construction material, Schewe said, but it will take awhile “before this sort of technology moves into mainstream application.’’

Lars Samuelson, a physics professor at the University of Lund, Sweden, said graphene developments are underway in several areas, especially for making television screens.

“It is incredibly transparent; it lets through 98 percent of light, so it would be ideal to have on large TV screens,’’ he said.

Highlighting the playfulness of the two scientists, the Nobel citation said they created a “super sticky tape’’ seven years ago, inspired by a gecko’s ability to stick to even the smoothest surface.

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