By Geoff Brumfiel
This year's Nobel Prize in Physics went to the discoverers of the one-atom-thick sheets of carbon known as graphene. Andre Geim of the University of Manchester, UK, who shared the award with his colleague Konstantin Novoselov, tells Nature why graphene deserves the prize, and why he hasn't patented it. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)
In one sentence, what is graphene?
Graphene is a single plane of graphite that has to be pulled out of bulk graphite to show its amazing properties.
What are these properties?
It's the thinnest possible material you can imagine. It also has the largest surface-to-weight ratio: with one gram of graphene you can cover several football pitches (in Manchester, you know, we measure surface area in football pitches). It's also the strongest material ever measured; it's the stiffest material we know; it's the most stretchable crystal. That's not the full list of superlatives, but it's pretty impressive.
A lot of people expected you to win, but not so soon after the discovery in 2004. Were you expecting it?
I didn't think it would happen this year. I was thinking about next year or maybe 2014. I slept quite soundly without much expectation. Yeah, it's good, it's good.
Graphene has won, but not that much has actually been done with it yet. Do you think it was too soon?
No. The prize, if you read the citation, was given for the properties of graphene; it wasn't given for expectations that have not yet been realized. Ernest Rutherford's 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry wasn't given for the nuclear power station--he wouldn't have survived that long--it was given for showing how interesting atomic physics could be. I believe the Nobel prize committee did a good job.
Do you think that carbon nanotubes were unfairly overlooked?
It's difficult to judge; I'm a little afraid of being biased. If the prize had been given for bringing graphene to the attention of the community, then it would have been unfair to take it away from carbon nanotubes. But it was given for graphene's properties, and I think carbon nanotubes did not deliver that range of properties. Everyone knows that--in terms of physics, not applications--carbon nanotubes were not as successful as graphene.
Why do you think graphene has become so popular in the physics community?
I would say there are three important things about graphene. It's two-dimensional, which is the best possible number for studying fundamental physics. The second thing is the quality of graphene, which stems from its extremely strong carbon-carbon bonds. And finally, the system is also metallic.
What do you think graphene will be used for first?
Two or three months ago, I was in South Korea, and I was shown a graphene roadmap, compiled by Samsung. On this roadmap were approximately 50 dots, corresponding to particular applications. One of the closest applications with a reasonable market value was a flexible touch screen. Samsung expects something within two to three years.
You haven't yet patented graphene. Why is that?
We considered patenting; we prepared a patent and it was nearly filed. Then I had an interaction with a big, multinational electronics company. I approached a guy at a conference and said, "We've got this patent coming up, would you be interested in sponsoring it over the years?" It's quite expensive to keep a patent alive for 20 years. The guy told me, "We are looking at graphene, and it might have a future in the long term. If after 10 years we find it's really as good as it promises, we will put a hundred patent lawyers on it to write a hundred patents a day, and you will spend the rest of your life, and the gross domestic product of your little island, suing us." That's a direct quote.
I considered this arrogant comment, and I realized how useful it was. There was no point in patenting graphene at that stage. You need to be specific: you need to have a specific application and an industrial partner. Unfortunately, in many countries, including this one, people think that applying for a patent is an achievement. In my case it would have been a waste of taxpayers' money.
Finally, are you one of those Nobel prizewinners who is going to go crazy now that you've won?
As I've said before, some people stop doing science and just do crazy and awkward things; other people try to prove that they were worth it, and overload with research so much that they go crazy in a different manner; and of course, some Nobel prizewinners are actually senile by the time they get the prize. I'll try to keep my sanity as long as possible.