IN MY VIEW: Levitating frogs and sticky geckos

Two Russian-born scientists, both now working at the UK's University of Manchester, have been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for developing an unusual form of carbon, called "graphene."

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BY JEFFREY BAIRSTOW

Two Russian-born scientists, both now working at the UK's University of Manchester, have been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for developing an unusual form of carbon, called "graphene." The word "working" may not be the precise word that I am looking for here because these two wild and crazy guys are still fooling around with the kind of crude experiments that are often favored by small boys.

For example, one of the researchers, Dr. Andre Geim (51), spent several years at the University of Bristol trying to levitate living frogs, using powerful magnets. He was ultimately successful at this endeavor, although since most frogs are quite capable of sufficient self-levitation using their powerful leg muscles, one might question the need for the exercise. But, then, Dr. Geim is no stranger to apparently useless research.

In 2000, Dr. Geim was awarded an "Ig-Nobel Prize" for his sterling frog-raising work and he has now become the first physicist to win both a Nobel Prize and an Ig-Nobel Prize, the latter being a sort of parody award or an "anti-Nobel." The Ig-Nobel Prize is awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research (www.improbable.com) and is in no way connected with the original Nobel Prize.

Dr. Geim and his coworker, Dr. Konstantin Novoselov (36), collaborated on graphite research for several years before accidentally discovering graphene. The two scientists were attempting to derive very thin flakes of carbon without much success until a laboratory technician showed the pair how to lift very thin flakes of graphite from cleaning the inside of a scanning tunneling microscope using adhesive tape. This tape is generally called "Scotch Tape," or "Sellotape" in the UK. Dr. Geim said, "It's called the 'Scotch Tape' technique. It doesn't sound very high-tech, does it?" Nonetheless, by peeling layer after layer of graphite from chunks of the material, the two researchers finally achieved a thin film of graphene just one atom thick.

Graphene is extraordinarily thin and exhibits enormous strength. Two Columbia University researchers claim to have done some calculations that show if a sheet of graphene is scaled up to the thickness of a sheet of plastic refrigerator wrap and stretched over a coffee cup, it could then support the weight of a truck bearing down on a pencil point. Again, I don't see the point of this exercise but it certainly carries weight with the graphene crowd.

Naturally, researchers are making extensive predictions for the widespread application and production of graphene. (Remember when buckyballs and carbon nanotubes were big?) Several optimistic researchers have suggested that graphene would be a better substrate for complex silicon-based integrated circuits. However, such developments are likely to take 20 years or more, say Geim and Novoselov. There may be other, simpler applications, such as reinforcement of airplane bodies and lightweight car components that could see the light of day in the next decade or so. The mass manufacturing problems will be extraordinarily difficult to overcome, in my view.

But, for now, the two prize-winners will share approximately $1.5 million in prize money. Both researchers claim that the award will not change their research or their lifestyles. Said Geim, "My plan for today is to go to work and finish up a paper that I didn't finish this week. I just try to muddle on as before."

For more on this field and the researchers, do a Google on "graphene," and you will be swamped by news stories, videos, podcasts, technical papers, and press.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
inmyview@yahoo.com

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