Graphene, the Nobel Prize, and levitating frogs

As you may have heard, two  scientists (Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov) who performed groundbreaking research on graphene [Nov. 29, 2010: I corrected this entry Nov. 26, 2010 which originally stated that these researchers discovered graphene] have been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics. In honour of their award, the journal, Nature Materials, is giving free access to  a 2007 article authored by the scientists. From the news item on Nanowerk,

The 2007 landmark article in Nature Materials “The rise of graphene” by the just announced winners of the 2010 Nobel prize in physics, Andre Geim and Kosta Novoselov, has now been made available as a free access article.


Graphene is a rapidly rising star on the horizon of materials science and condensed-matter physics. This strictly two-dimensional material exhibits exceptionally high crystal and electronic quality, and, despite its short history, has already revealed a cornucopia of new physics and potential applications, which are briefly discussed here.

Here’s a description of the scientists and their work from the BBC News article by Paul Rincon,

Prof Geim, 51, is a Dutch national while Dr Novoselov, 36, holds British and Russian citizenship. Both are natives of Russia and started their careers in physics there.

The Nobels are valued at 10m Swedish kronor (£900,000; 1m euros; $1.5m).

They first worked together in the Netherlands before moving to the UK. They were based at the University of Manchester when they published their groundbreaking research paper on graphene in October 2004.

Dr Novoselov is among the youngest winners of a prize that normally goes to scientists with decades of experience.

Graphene is a form of carbon. It is a flat layer of carbon atoms tightly packed into a two-dimensional honeycomb arrangement.

Because it is so thin, it is also practically transparent. As a conductor of electricity it performs as well as copper, and as a conductor of heat it outperforms all other known materials.

The unusual electronic, mechanical and chemical properties of graphene at the molecular scale promise ultra-fast transistors for electronics.

Some scientists have predicted that graphene could one day replace silicon – which is the current material of choice for transistors.

It could also yield incredibly strong, flexible and stable materials and find applications in transparent touch screens or solar cells.

Geim and Novoselov first isolated fine sheets of graphene from the graphite which is widely used in pencils.

A layer of graphite 1mm thick actually consists of three million layers of graphene stacked on top of one another.

The technique that Geim and Novoselov used to create the first graphene sheets both amuses and fascinates me (from the article by Kit Eaton on the Fast Company website),

The two scientists came up with the technique that first resulted in samples of graphene–peeling individual atoms-deep sheets of the material from a bigger block of pure graphite. The science here seems almost foolishly simple, but it took a lot of lateral thinking to dream up, and then some serious science to investigate: Geim and Novoselo literally “ripped” single sheets off the graphite by using regular adhesive tape. Once they’d confirmed they had grabbed micro-flakes of the material, Geim and Novoselo were responsible for some of the very early experiments into the material’s properties. Novel stuff indeed, but perhaps not so unexpected from a scientist (Geim) who the Nobel Committe notes once managed to make a frog levitate in a magnetic field.

I’ll get to the levitating frog in a minute but first the bit about using regular adhesive tape to peel off single sheets only atoms thick of graphite from a larger block of the stuff reminds me of how scientists at Northwestern University are using shrinky dinks (a child’s craft material) to create large scale nanopatterns cheaply (my Aug. 16, 2010 posting).

It’s reassuring to me that despite all of the high tech equipment that costs the earth, scientists still use fairly mundane, inexpensive objects to do some incredibly sophisticated work. The other thing I find reassuring is that Novoselov probably was not voted ‘most likely to be awarded a Nobel Prize’. Interestingly, Novoselov’s partner, Geim, was not welcomed into a physics career with open arms. From the news item on,

Konstantin Novoselov, the Russian-born physicist who shared this year’s Nobel prize, struggled with physics as a student and was awarded a handful of B grades, his university said Wednesday.

The Moscow Physics and Technology University (MFTI) posted report cards on its website for Novoselov, who at 36 won the Nobel prize for physics with his research partner Andre Geim.

The reports reveal that he gained a handful of B grades in his term reports for theoretical and applied physics from 1991 to 1994.

He was also not strong on physical education — a compulsory subject at Russian universities — gaining B grades. And while he now lives in Britain, he once gained a C grade for English.

The university also revealed documents on Nobel prize winner Geim, who studied at the same university from 1976 to 1982. His brilliant academic career was only marred by a few B-grades for Marxist political economy and English.

Geim was turned down when he applied first to another Moscow university specialising in engineering and physics, and worked as a machinist at a factory making electrical instruments for eight months.

Given the increasing emphasis on marks, in Canadian universities at least, I noticed that Novoselov was not a straight-A student. As for Geim, it seems the fact that his father was German posed a problem. (You can find more details in the article.)

As for levitating frogs, I first found this information in particle physicist Jon Butterworth’s October 5, 2010 posting on his Guardian blog,

Geim is also well known (or as his web page puts it “notorious”) for levitating frogs. This is a demonstration of the peculiar fact that all materials have some magnetism, albeit very weak in most cases, and that if you put them in a high enough magnetic field you can see the effects – and make them fly.

Why frogs? Well, no frogs were harmed in the experiments. But also, magnetism is a hugely important topic in physics that can seem a little dry to students …

I hunted down a video of the levitating frog on youtube,

As a particle physicist, Butterworth notes that the graphene work is outside his area of expertise so if you’re looking for a good, general explanation with some science detail added in for good measure, I’d suggest reading his succinct description.

3 thoughts on “Graphene, the Nobel Prize, and levitating frogs

  1. Pingback: Graphene, IBM’s first graphene-based integrated circuit, and the European Union’s pathfinder programme in information technologies « FrogHeart

  2. Pingback: Geim and Novoselov, knights of the realm « FrogHeart

  3. Pingback: Nano crafts class: get out your ‘paper’ and scissors « FrogHeart

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