The godfather of graphene
It 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:
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.
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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 began his career as a scientist and is a Chartered Chemist and Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry. As a scientist and ... <Read more about Adrian Nixon>