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Konstantin Novoselov

Nobel Prize in Physics

2010

When Sir Konstantin Novoselov and Sir Andre Geim isolated graphene and mapped its properties in 2004, they not only unlocked a wonder material but also spurred a global research frenzy.

Consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms, graphene is many times stronger than steel, lighter than paper, an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and flexible to boot. Scientists are now investigating its use in countless applications, from ultrathin and light body armour that can stop bullets, to membranes that can better filter salt out of seawater. 

Before Sir Konstantin and Sir Andre’s breakthrough, other scientists had tried to obtain graphene from materials with multiple layers of carbon atoms, such as graphite, but failed. Many thought that it was impossible to isolate such a thin material.

The solution, it turned out, was Scotch tape. By using copious amounts of the sticky tape, Sir Konstantin and Sir Andre were able to rip off thin flakes from a piece of graphite, and then get thinner and thinner flakes from the original ones.

The ingenious method, however, was only step one. Even after repeated use of the tape, some parts of the flakes would still have more than one layer of carbon atoms. To identify the fragments of graphene among the graphite, Sir Konstantin and Sir Andre came up with the successful idea of attaching the flakes to a plate of oxidised silicon and then putting the plate under a microscope. This enabled them to go on to study graphene’s properties. 

When the two scientists were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work, the Nobel Prize committee noted that “a vast variety of practical applications now appear possible, including the creation of new materials”. Their discoveries also sparked new and accelerated research worldwide into other two-dimensional materials.

Sir Konstantin himself is now looking into such materials - and the possibility of combining them to create novel materials - as Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the National University of Singapore. He said: “There is now a huge pool of two-dimensional crystals that cover a massive range of properties. In theory, we could design any new material, layer by layer, for any new application.”

Beyond the Nobel Prize, Sir Konstantin has been conferred numerous honours, including a knighthood in Britain in 2012.