EDITOR: | October 3rd, 2016 | 18 Comments

The godfather of graphene

| October 03, 2016 | 18 Comments

Graphene-WorldIt is not every day you get to shake hands with a Nobel Prizewinner, especially if this particular Laureate is one Professor Sir Andre Geim who first isolated graphene (with his colleague Kostya Novoselov). I think this unassuming person will be one of the most important figures of the 21st century, read on to find out why…

I met the man in Manchester, UK, last week and I liked him. Andre Geim is not impressed by titles and honours. He does not like people calling him ‘Sir’ and discourages the use of the title ‘Professor’. Having these honours is satisfying for him from the point of view of an achievement provided it doesn’t get in the way of doing interesting work. Not for him retirement to the lecture circuit telling aspiring masses how to get a Nobel Prize.

If you are curious you can see what the Nobel Prize medal for Chemistry and Physics looks like, the Nobel Foundation kindly gave permission for us to show you:


© ® The Nobel Foundation

You can find out more about the Nobel Foundation at this link, oh, and a Nobel Prize comes with a cash award of 8 million Swedish Kronor too.

“There is a lot of luck involved,” he says when asked why he was chosen by the Nobel committee. Don’t be deceived by his modesty, this man is in the top one percent of the smartest scientists in the world. By his own reckoning there are about five million scientists actively researching in the world. So a Nobel Prize is awarded to individuals from a pool of at least fifty thousand other very smart scientists. This is what he means by luck. A previous winner of the same prize is Albert Einstein, you may have heard of him. Since 1901 the Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded only 201 times, This is a rare achievement which contributes to its fame.

For those of you who are reading this column for the first time, Andre Geim was awarded the Nobel Prize for isolating graphene from graphite. He did this using ordinary sticky tape and, peeling away layers, observed the results under the microscope. Graphite is black, and what he noticed was that some of the pieces were transparent. And he guessed (rightly) that these were the individual layers of transparent hexagonally connected carbon.

Nobel prizes are not awarded for just playing with sticky tape. What Andre and Kostya then did was conduct a series of clever experiments to isolate the tiny individual graphene layers and perform a variety of tests to find out their chemical and physical properties. They discovered a substance that was stronger than steel, the world’s best electrical and thermal conductor. If that wasn’t enough, they showed that a one atom thick layer could exist without curling up. It is the world’s thinnest substance therefore the world’s first two-dimensional material, and they call it graphene.

I asked Andre what he thought of possibility to manufacture graphene on large-scale sheets, say, big enough to make a hammock. He described the current state of the art as flaky production, meaning that current large scale manufacture of graphene is of dispersions and powders containing microscopic flakes of graphene that are used as additives in various products with varying results. He thought that while some progress has been made, large-scale production of defect free sheet graphene was some way off. The current methods are very expensive, are uneconomic and produce sheet graphene with many defects. This agrees very well with our findings at InvestorIntel where we have analysed the global graphene manufacturing market with similar conclusions.

He thought graphene flakes make good additives for a variety of materials but the technology is still at an early stage of commercialization and the improvements are of the order of a few percentage points. There is still some way to go before we see the vast transformative effects in everyday products that some commentators report. Having said that, even these incremental improvements can produce economic benefits that would outweigh the investment put into graphene research to date.

So, if graphene is making incremental changes to materials science why do I think Andre Geim will be so important in the future? Let me illustrate this with another award he received. Have you heard of the Ig Nobel Prize? The Igs are awarded each year at Harvard University in the US.

Do a Google search and a picture from Andre’s famous experiment accompanies the search results:


In 2000 he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for his research into the effects of magnetism on water. He found that pouring drops of water into very expensive magnetic field generator made the drops of water float in mid air. He tried lots of other things, strawberries, and tomatoes, even a living frog, all of which levitated and were unharmed. He admits with a smile that he is still better known as the frogman than for his work on graphene in some circles.

Andre’s work showed that ever-present diamagnetism was NOT as negligible as commonly believed. Diamagnetic levitation is still being explored, for example creating microgravity conditions here on earth, however this field is beyond the scope of this column.

He knows from long experience that academic life can be tough and draining, “Let’s try to do something for our soul… Knowledge is fun,” he says.

Andre Geim is not only a very smart Nobel Prizewinning scientist. He is a charming man with an engaging sense of humour and a healthy disregard for ego and status; this is combined with an explorer’s curiosity. I see a powerful combination of natural ability to break down barriers both human and scientific. Let him play and do search more than research. I believe this man will discover many wonders yet. That is why I think Andre Geim will become one of the most important figures of the 21st century.


Adrian Nixon is a Senior Editor at InvestorIntel. He began his career as a scientist and is a Chartered Chemist and Member of the Royal ... <Read more about Adrian Nixon>

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  • Peter Clausi


    The only winner of the Ignoble and the Nobel. I was at a conference this weekend talking about battery metals and cobalt. Graphene came into the conversation as a possible future element for batteries. Just about everyone knew of the levitating frog.

    October 3, 2016 - 12:19 PM

  • Jack Lifton

    Materials that can co-exist with us at standard temperatures and pressures but are not found in nature (i.e. pre-existing in the environmental range in which we live) are difficult both to make and make stable over useful (long) periods of time. Graphene can co-exist with us, but the question is can we mass produce it in stable forms where its properties can be used to enable valuable technologies? This is a question not so much for laboratory scientists as it is for chemical and materials’ manufacturing engineers. The establishment of a graphene “foundry” albeit at a laboratory scale in Halifax by Elcora is a much more meaningful step towards solving the commercialization problem than any further announcements of new properties discovered in a research laboratory

    October 3, 2016 - 1:31 PM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Hi Peter and Jack, Thanks for the comments. You are perfectly right that Andre is the only winner of the IgNobel and Nobel prizes and he is probably more famous for the levitating frog than graphene. Perhaps that is easier for everyone to visualise. Scaling up graphene technology is still a challenge. It is being used in batteries and as an additive in carbon fibre panels and tyres. The improvements are incremental at the moment but graphene is making improvements in real products. You are quite right Jack, graphene is moving out of the laboratory and into the hands of manufacturing engineers.

    October 4, 2016 - 10:24 AM

  • Dan S. Harrison

    And the Queen is Mildred Dresselhaus, for her contributions to carbon, graphite & graphene, see:

    October 5, 2016 - 1:31 PM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Hi Dan I certainly agree that Mildred has made great contributions to the understanding of carbon chemistry, in particular carbon nanotubes and fullerenes. She has also done really interesting stuff on intercalation in graphite (essentially sticking things in between the layers in graphite rather like the way a multi-layer sandwich is made) I wasn’t aware of her specific work on graphene and i’d be fascinated to follow the link you gave, however it ends in a 404 page.

    October 6, 2016 - 4:58 AM

  • Tim Ainsworth
    October 6, 2016 - 8:00 AM

  • Tim Ainsworth

    Great story, wonderful pic, thnx Dan.

    October 6, 2016 - 8:09 AM

  • Sharron Clayton

    Yes, thank you Dan for sharing.

    October 6, 2016 - 9:17 AM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Thanks Tim, The link worked perfectly and was well worth a read. Mildred is certainly an inspiring figure in science and I was really impressed that she is still working in her eighties. Very few people get to do things they really enjoy doing. “If you have a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life” as Confucius or Mark Twain have said.

    October 6, 2016 - 11:17 AM

  • Tim Ainsworth

    Probably no better example of her legacy than the link to one she mentored: http://rpi.edu/president/profile.html Doubtless countless others over such a career.

    We see such a constant stream of negativity & false promises in popular media, refreshing that your positive article brought three such high achievers to our attention.

    Could I encourage you to take a look at the work of some of the individuals & teams at Ames, ORNL, NIMS, etc, quite sure there are some great stories there indicative of future direction, and very relevant here.

    Certainly the RE space would be better informed spending some time looking top down rather than constantly thrashing around bottom up.

    October 7, 2016 - 12:04 AM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Tim, I’m glad you recognised the positivity and found it refreshing. It is good to know this is appreciated. It takes time and effort to write without falling into the trap of easy criticism with 20/20 hindsight. I made a deliberate choice to do this a while back and I have never regretted that decision. This doesn’t mean I naively accept everyone’s wild guesswork or marketing spin, if things in my path are blatantly wrong or misleading I’ll point that out if appropriate. You will find me looking for and making the good stuff as clear and understandable as I can.

    You have also encouraged me to take a wider look at some of the others working in this area. If you know specific people / teams I’ll happily take a closer look at their work. Thanks for the signposting.

    October 7, 2016 - 6:02 PM

  • Tim Ainsworth

    Adrian, pardon the delay, was meaning to point you at this this, but just came across a reminder:

    Given a Sino report this week claimed 88% of the NdFeB mkt by volume the potential disruption SB explored, particularly given nominal ASP bonded $90kg vs sintered $150kg.

    Is 3D printing the tech that might swing a chunk of NdFeB volume manufacture back ROW?

    Note John Ormerod popped in here with a comment on the Daido/Honda piece recently, might be well worth a chat.

    November 4, 2016 - 8:09 AM

  • Tim Ainsworth
    November 4, 2016 - 8:16 AM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Tim, Thanks for the links, yes additive manufacturing (3D printing) can make materials with better properties, such as the magnets you identified. The discovery of graphene has spawned interest in other 2D materials and there is work going on layering these to create brand new materials with many interesting properties. 3D printing may enable the manufacture of these novel layered materials but this is some way off yet. Worth keeping a watching brief on though.

    November 4, 2016 - 1:49 PM

  • Tylemahos

    ‘Sheets of graphene’.

    I’ve always found this odd personally. To make a ‘sheet’ one requires ‘string’. So why not try to create graphene strings and weave them together to form a sheet.

    November 5, 2016 - 5:56 AM

  • Adrian Nixon

    Hi Tylemahos, Yes I can understand why it might seem odd at first. I’ll try to explain…
    ‘String’ in this sense would be a long chain of carbon atoms connected to one another, rather in the manner of elephants in a line holding trunks to tails. A chemical equivalent of this is called a chain polymer, you’ll be familiar with polyethylene, commonly called polythene used to make plastic shopping bags. You’ll find this material stretches and tears quite easily. You can rip it apart with your hands. This is because the polymer chains (string, if you like) are just tangled up together and can slide over one another making the material weak. In graphene, you can think of these chains being welded together, side by side at each and every carbon atom. This is what makes graphene so thin and so strong.

    November 5, 2016 - 6:25 AM

  • Ian

    I’d like to know of the water purifierifying properties of the graphene layer idea
    That is the best test for humanity ..right now .

    November 17, 2016 - 7:35 AM

  • adrian nixon

    I agree Ian that water purification is a big benefit for humanity. There are many claims for graphene to do this. I have yet to see convincing evidence for a working scaled up version beyond lab tests.

    November 17, 2016 - 1:11 PM

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