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See Inside April 2008

Carbon Wonderland

Graphene, a newly isolated form of carbon, provides a rich lode of novel fundamental physics and practical applications



Matt Collins

Consider the humble pencil. It may come as a surprise to learn that the now common writing instrument at one time topped the list of must-have, high-tech gadgets. In fact, the simple pencil was once even banned from export as a strategic military asset. But what is probably more unexpected is the news that every time someone scribes a line with a pencil, the resulting mark includes bits of the hottest new material in physics and nanotechnology: graphene.

Graphene comes from graphite, the “lead” in a pencil: a kind of pure carbon formed from flat, stacked layers of atoms. The tiered structure of graphite was discerned centuries ago, and so it was natural for physicists and materials scientists to try splitting the mineral into its constituent sheets—if only to study a substance whose geometry might turn out to be so elegantly simple. Graphene is the name given to one such sheet. It is made up entirely of carbon atoms bound together in a network of repeating hexagons within a single plane just one atom thick.

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