Geim, Novoselov Win Nobel Prize In Physics

Russian-born scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov shared the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for "groundbreaking experiments" with a new material expected to play a large role in electronics.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're another day into Nobel Prize season. The Nobel Prize for Physics has just been announced.�It's gone to two scientists who were born in Russia, and who now work together at the University of Manchester, in England.

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov received the award for discovering a new form of carbon called graphene.�It's described as being an extremely, extremely, extremely flat sheet of material. It's said to be able to do amazing things. So we're going to talk about that with NPR science correspondent Dan Charles.

Good morning.

DAN CHARLES: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Graphene?

CHARLES: Graphene. And the discovery of grapheme is one of those stories that makes you feel like you and I could do physics...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHARLES: ...and not just people with big atom smashers. Because the way it was actually discovered was on a Friday afternoon, they had a tradition in this laboratory of doing just kind of experiments - crazy experiments.

INSKEEP: OK.

CHARLES: They put Scotch tape down on a block of graphite, which is pure carbon. Same kind of thing that's in this pencil here.

INSKEEP: OK. All right.

CHARLES: They rolled the Scotch tape off and they realized they could get a thin layer of flat carbon. Now, it wasn't grapheme.

INSKEEP: On the tape. It sticks to the tape.

CHARLES: On the tape. It stuck to the tape. And they realized this is a thin flat sheet of carbon. We could refine this technique and get a sheet a single atom thick. That is grapheme. Of course, they had to have much better, more sophisticated methods.

INSKEEP: So a sheet of this paper only one atom thick?

CHARLES: exactly.

INSKEEP: Unbelievably (unintelligible)...

CHARLES: Unbelievably thin, unbelievably strong, because carbon is this amazing material.

That happened in 2004, which is not that long ago. So for them to get the Nobel Prize for it now, is actually quite quick by Nobel Prize standards. And you can sense the excitement in the scientific community.

INSKEEP: OK. Why the excitement? What do you do with this unbelievably thin sheet of carbon?

CHARLES: Well, that is the thing that lots of people are now working on. You go to scientific conferences in physics and chemistry and there are many, many sessions on grapheme and the things that you might be able to do with it.

INSKEEP: Heck of a paper airplane, I think.

CHARLES: Some of the characteristics - OK. It's a really, really good conductor of electricity. It's flexible. It's so think you can see right through it. It's transparent. Very strong, very light. So they're thinking about things like touch screens or electronic sensors or down the road, many other things, maybe even electronic components fabricated out of this super, super thin material.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that the computers that we use or the smartphones and so forth could be even smarter and more functional using this stuff?

CHARLES: That's right. It's being fabricated already, the material is, in strips up to say 30 inches across. So it's real. It exists. But they're still trying to figure out what it might be good for.

INSKEEP: So who are these two Russian-born scientists who discovered this with the Scotch tape?

CHARLES: Well, they're interesting. They're - first of all, they're pretty young by Nobel Prize standards. Andre Geim, sort of the leader of this team, is 51. Konstantin Novoselov�is only 36. They were born in Russia, but like a lot of young Russian scientists they emmigrated. Things were not going so well for scientists in the early '90s, so there was an exodus, including them.

They settled first in the Netherlands.

INSKEEP: Even after the fall of the Soviet Union it wasn't a good time for scientists?

CHARLES: It was an especially bad time because of the economic collapse. So there was no support for them.

They have a tradition of kind of having fun. Andre Geim is kind of famous for levitating a frog using magnetic fields and publishing that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And he once published a paper and listed his favorite hamster as a co-author.

INSKEEP: Do you know the hamster's name?

CHARLES: Yes. I have the abstract right here. It is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHARLES: ... H.A.M.S. ter Tisha.

INSKEEP: OK. But H.A.M.S. ter Tisha does not share the Nobel Prize?

CHARLES: No. No.

INSKEEP: OK. But these two Russian guys do, for discovering grapheme.

Dan, thanks very much.

CHARLES: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dan Charles.

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Nobel Awarded For Thin, Versatile Carbon Material

Graphene

hide captionGraphene is a one atom-thick layer of ordinary carbon atoms, organized in a flat sheet. It conducts both electricity and heat extremely well.

Jannik Meyer/Science via The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Two Russian-born scientists shared the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for "groundbreaking experiments'' with the thinnest, strongest material known to mankind, a carbon vital for the creation of faster computers and transparent touch screens.

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, professors at the University of Manchester in Britain, in 2004 isolated 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 materials to make satellites, airplanes and cars, as well as innovative electronics, the academy said in announcing the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award.

Graphene transistors are predicted to be substantially faster than today's silicon transistors and result in more efficient computers,'' the academy said in the citation. "Since it is practically transparent and a good conductor, graphene is suitable for producing transparent touch screens, light panels and maybe even solar cells.''

Konstantin Novoselov

hide captionRussian-British national Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Physics Prize with Andre Geim.

AFP/Getty Images
Andre Geim

hide captionAndre Geim's pioneering work on graphene with Novoselov shows "that carbon in such a flat form has exceptional properties that originate from the world of quantum physics," the Nobel jury said.

AFP/Getty Images

And researchers at the University of Southern California are using graphene in organic photovoltaic solar cells as a highly transparent material that's also good at conducting electricity. OPV cells are cheaper and more flexible than silicon cells, and researchers say they could be hung as curtains or even made into fabric and worn as power-generating clothing, but they convert sunlight to electricity far less efficiently.

Geim, 51, is a Dutch national while Novoselov, 36, holds British and Russian citizenship. Both are natives of Russia and started their careers in physics there. They first worked together in the Netherlands before moving to Britain.

Novoselov is among the youngest winners 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.

Geim told The Associated Press he didn't expect to win the prize this year 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 lager piece of graphite, Geim said.

"It's a humble technique. But the hard work came later,'' he said, comparing the material to plastics in its ability to revolutionize the world.

"It has all the potential to change your life in the same way that plastics did,'' he said."It is really exciting.''

Geim last year won the prestigious Korber European Science Award for the discovery, the University of Manchester said.

"This was a well-deserved award,'' said Phillip F. Schewe, spokesman for the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland.

"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.

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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. Its properties could also lead to potential uses in construction material, Schewe said, but added it would take a while "before this sort of technology moves into mainstream application.''

The 2010 Nobel Prize announcements started Monday with the medicine award going to British researcher Robert Edwards, 85, for work that led to the first test tube baby, an achievement that helped bring 4 million infants into the world and raised challenging new questions about human reproduction.

The chemistry prize will be announced on Wednesday, followed by literature on Thursday, the peace prize on Friday and economics on Monday Oct. 11.

The prestigious awards were created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first given out in 1901. The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.

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