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Graphene Discovery Leads to Top Physics Prize

Photonics.com
Oct 2006
MANCHESTER, England, Oct. 23, 2006 -- A discovery that could lead to computers being made from one-atom-thick sheets of carbon has netted a British scientist one of England's top physics prizes.

Professor Andre Geim of the University of Manchester School of Physics and Astronomy has been awarded the 2007 Mott Medal and Prize by the Institute of Physics for his 2004 discovery of a new class of materials -- freestanding two-dimensional crystals -- the first materials that are just a single atom thick. Among them is graphene, which has proven to be very useful to science in a number of ways.

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms densely packed in a honeycomb crystal lattice. The material is made from splitting graphite apart into individual atomic planes, through a process similar to tracing with a pencil. The resulting atomic sheet is unexpectedly stable, highly flexible and strong, and very conductive, scientists said.

Graphene.jpg
Scanning electron micrograph of a 10 nm carbon flake of graphite, 30 layers thick.
One of many unique properties of graphene is that its electrons mimic particles moving with the speed of light, which presents an easy way for scientists to study relativistic phenomena.

In November 2005, a team of British, Russian and Dutch scientists led by Geim used graphene to test Einstein's theory of relativity in a table-top experiment. Until then, it was only possible to test the famous theory by building expensive machinery or by studying stars in distant galaxies.

The team's discovery has the potential to speed up future discoveries and save billions of dollars, now that tests can be set up using graphene and relatively inexpensive laboratory equipment.

Geim and his team have also found that graphene exhibits a remarkable quality that means that electrons can travel without any scattering over submicron distances. This is important for making very fast switching transistors.

In the quest to make the computer chip more powerful and faster, engineers are striving to produce smaller transistors, shortening the paths electrons have to travel to switch the devices on and off.

Ultimately, scientists envisage transistors made from a single molecule, and Geim's work has brought that vision closer, the Institute of Physics said. In the future, it could lead to a computer being carved entirely out of a single sheet of graphene.

"It is certainly nice and somewhat unexpected to be acknowledged at such an early stage," said Geim. "Although it was found only two years ago, graphene has proved itself as a truly remarkable material, with a wealth of new physics coming out.

"It is too early to speak about real applications. However, all the indications are that graphene will be not just another new material but will find a multitude of applications so that everyone might eventually be influenced by this discovery," he said. 

Professor John Durell, head of the School of Physics and Astronomy, said, "The discovery of graphene has led to the creation of a new and exciting 'laboratory' for the study of fundamental science. Future development of production techniques could lead to applications with the potential to revolutionize electronic devices."

The Institute of Physics awards honor physicists who have "made remarkable contributions to science." The Mott Medal honors contributions in condensed matter or material physics research.

Other 2007 Institute of Physics awards presented this month include the Dirac Medal and Prize, presented to David Sherrington of the University of Oxford for his pioneering work on spin glasses, which the institute said has led to a better understanding of physical characteristics of glasses and how these disordered structures differ from regular crystals; and the Young Medal and Prize, presented to James Roy Taylor of Imperial College London for his contributions to the development of modern solid-state lasers, including the pioneering of lasers that generate ultrashort pulses of light that can help understand how light travels along optical fibers.

Receiving the Boys Medal and Prize for early career research was Amalia Patanè of the University of Nottingham for her innovative experimental studies of the quantum behavior of electrons in novel semiconductor heterostructures.

For more information, visit: www.iop.org


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