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12Oct/10

TIYBOA Guide to the Nobel Prizes: Graphene!

Well it's that time of the year again, the verdict is in, and we've got our 2010 Nobel Award winners.  Now, this is always an exciting time for me, because it gives me a great chance to see what kinds of amazing research is going on in the scientific world that isn't solely concerned with Neuroscience or the world of cognition.

Since this website is one of the best ways for me to work information around in my own brain, as well as to tell other people about the cool things going on in the world of science, I figured I'd give a quick explanation of this year's prizes in Medicine, Chemistry and Physics (and I'll resist the temptation to go political and mention China's detained recipient).  First up:

Physics - Graphene

I have to say that this is the discovery that I am most excited about.  The world of materials and synthesis is an oft-overlooked sub-field of physics, but it continues to redefine what structures are possible in the physical world, and to come up with increasingly creative and useful functions for these new materials.

This year, researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester have earned the admiration of physicists everywhere with the discovery of Graphene, a tiny yet incredibly powerful new kind of material.

Graphene's structure is beautifully simple - it exists as a single sheet of carbon atoms, arranged in a honeycomb fashion (think really tiny chicken wire).  Here I want to reiterate - this is essentially the same stuff that exists in the graphite head of a pencil, just an incredibly thin slice of it.  By "incredibly thin," I really mean "inconceivably, unbelievably, amazingly thin," since this bad boy is a mere 1-atom thick.  So small, in fact, that it is invisible to the human eye, despite having all kinds of useful properties.

What makes this material truly amazing, however, is that it has applications for fields ranging from plastics to electronics.  Graphene is a fantastic conductor of heat, which means that it won't succumb to the high temperatures that make nano-computing a problem.  Since it also conducts electricity just as easily as copper, this makes it a prime candidate for the next generation of supercomputers.

For instance, you've probably heard of Moore's Law, a theory that roughly suggests that our technology will increase at an exponential rate (this is the "processing speed doubles every year" thing).  Well, people have been worried for quite some time if this law may be slowly coming to a halt as it becomes more and more difficult to fit more transistors and other parts into our computers.  A big problem with this has been overheating - once you've got really really tiny materials, it becomes increasingly difficult to dissipate and control heat.

However, with Graphene, this becomes less of an issue.  Since it can still conduct electricity quite well, and since it also conducts heat much better than copper, Graphene poses a highly-useful alternative to the stuff we've traditionally included in our microprocessors and circuit boards.  This will allow us to build faster, smaller, more powerful computers for years to come.

In addition, Graphene is extremely strong and stable.  It turns out that the "honeycomb" patterns is sort of nature's optimization for stability, and this gives it all kinds of interesting properties for durability and  stress-testing.  As such, you can expect to see Graphene used to reinforce plastics, increase the stability of structures such as airplanes, and insert into small devices where durability is important, such as touch-screens.  I've anecdotally heard that the breaking point of Graphene can be likened to an elephant standing on a pencil pointed at a sheet of the stuff.  Pretty amazing stuff, huh?

The professors have spent the better part of three decades researching this stuff, so it's still relatively far from being produced for the masses.  However, once released into the wild, Graphene will change our lives in a dramatic way.  I can't wait!

via the Nobel Prize site, but you should also check out its potential applications on its Wikipedia Page

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