Modern Day Wright Brothers

The airplane was invented by two guys working in a bicycle shop.  The PC was invented in some guy’s garage.  But the story of an ordinary person creating something that changes the world… that doesn’t happen anymore.

Most advances in science and technology require the vast resources of a corporation or government agency.  Companies like Apple and Lockheed Martin are building the future.

Except this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics proves everything I just said wrong.  Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov discovered a substance one atom thick, stronger than diamond, and able to conduct electricity faster than any other known substance.  They did it using a pencil, some sticky tape, and a flat surface.  It’s so easy anyone can do it at home, and there are even instructions on the Internet (see the first link below).

You make small amounts of graphene every time you use a graphite pencil.  It’s been all around us for centuries, but no one noticed it.  We can use it to make smaller, faster transistors, or use it in LCD screens, solar cells, and other electronics.  Mixed with plastics, it can make stronger, lighter airplanes, cars, etc… and it’s two-dimensional structure could change the way we understand quantum mechanics.

Graphene is made of carbon atoms arranged in a perfect hexagon.  These hexagons connect end to end.  In a graphite pencil, layers of these hexagons are stacked on top of each other, and when you write you shave several layers off to make a mark on the page.  Pressing a pencil mark between sticky tape can separate the layers further, creating pure graphene.

The next step is to find a way to mass-produce it.  Rubbing pencils and tape together is easy, but creating large sheets of graphene is hard.  We’ll probably need the vast resources of a corporation to do that.  But once we find a way, graphene will change the world, and Geim and Novoselov will be as famous as the Wright Brothers.

Do It Yourself Graphene

Scientific American from 2008 on Graphene’s Discovery

Science Magazine: Graphene Wins Nobel Prize

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