Material Question (Annals of Innovation) by John Colapinto

Material Question

If you are teacher of chemistry, you probably already know something about graphene, the first and only two-dimensional material.  As you probably know, graphene consists of a single layer of the familiar graphite carbon hexagons that we teach about in introductory courses. Graphene was discovered by Andre Geim of the University of Manchester in 2004, and he and his graduate student, Konstantin Novoselov, received the Nobel Prize for their work in 2010. The original, three-page paper in Science has spawned over 8500 patents, but only a couple of consumer products so far use the new material: tennis rackets and ink.  However, all of those patents have resulted from its potential to revolutionize battery technology, make bendable computer screens, improve solar cells, make superfast microcomputers, and desalinize water, among many other things. It is pretty expensive, but you can buy graphene and graphene oxide commercially now, and that has helped to spur research on practical applications.
John Calapinto’s article about graphene is worthwhile reading, not only because it is an accessible explanation of the materials science of graphene, but also because of the way he describes Geim’s “lateral-thinking” research style, which is what led him to attempt to isolate a single layer of carbon from a ball of Scotch tape that was covered with a layer of graphite residue. You can isolate graphene yourself in this way: put some tape on a patch of pencil “lead” on paper.  Some of the smudge on the tape is graphene.  It would take a powerful microscope to prove how much of it is graphene, however. It turns out that one can also isolate graphene from coal, by grinding it, dispersing it in an acid solution, and boiling it for a while. Samsung “grows” it on a sheet of hot copper in a vacuum by introducing methane gas.
There is a worldwide gold rush for patents on graphene applications, and Calapinto describes some of the leading players. Besides the University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute headed by Geim and Novoselov, some of the leading ones are at Samsung and at Chinese universities.  Organic chemist James Tour of Rice University is among the most prominent in the field, as is Tomas Palacios, who runs M.I.T.’s Center for Graphene Devices and 2D Systems. Tour’s direction is largely toward quantum dots while Palacios is emphasizing energy-harvesting by graphene structures. It is an exciting time, and chemists and materials scientists are at the center of the revolution.

Publication information
Pick Attribution: 

The New Yorker, December 22 & 29, 2014, p. 50 [Subscription required for URL above.]

Publication Date: 
Friday, January 23, 2015