Konstantin Novoselov tells E&T how a Friday evening experiment led to the discovery of graphene and a 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics.
On 5 October last year, Konstantin Novoselov shed his usual t-shirt and jeans to don white tie. He and his supervisor Professor Andre Geim jointly accepted the Nobel Prize for Physics 2010. In his acceptance speech, Geim talked about how 'cautiousness and political correctness' were in danger of drowning unconventional thinking. He said we could stray from democracy to 'mediocracy to idiocracy'. He added, 'if you want an example don't look any further than research funding by the European Commission'.
Geim is known for his fluid, label-free mode of working and encouraging unconventional ideas (in 2001 he co-authored the paper 'Detection of Earth Rotation with a Diamagnetically Levitating Gyroscope' with H.A.M.S. ter Tisha ' his pet hamster). Geim's fluid approach works well for Novoselov and Geim has spoken highly of the Russian's work ethic. The pair have been working together for over a decade.
Both grew up in Russia, Geim of Russo-German parentage and Novoselov in an industrial town near the Ural mountains. In Holland, Novoselov became Geim's PhD student and in Manchester Geim supervised his post-doctoral research. Then the pair were jointly 'Stockholmed', as Bristol Professor Sir Michael Berry, described it.
Still in his 30s, Konstantin Novoselov is a doctor and professor and currently a member of the Mesoscopic Physics research'team at Manchester University. However, he immediately makes himself known as Kostya (the diminutive form of Konstantin). His oft-mispronounced surname should be said 'Novosyolov' (stress on the third syllable). Kostya doesn't have any time, he says, but nonetheless he gives me nearly an hour. I start with his incredible trajectory from provincial Russian town to Nobel capital.
Kostya was born in Nizhni Tagil in 1974. Before Kostya came along, the last time this town was featured in the international press was probably for a prostitution ring uncovered in 2007.
Since its inception in the early 18th century, Nizhni Tagil had been a mining town (copper, steel and iron). I wonder if > <'this early exposure to metals and technology had an influence on the young Kostya; as Nizhni Tagil also produced Yefim Cherepanov, an industrial engineer who constructed the first Russian locomotive and Boris Rauschenbach, physicist and rocket engineer.
'How deep do you want to go?' Kostya asks. He grew up in the Dzerzhinsky region, colloquially known as Vagonka, or 'Train Carriage', because the local factory made tanks and train cars. He was surrounded by people 'who worked in reasonably high tech.' Neither of his parents were scientists ' his mother was an English teacher but his father was an engineer at the factory and was into water sports.
Kostya says he was surrounded by technical expertise from an early age. In those Soviet days, people made a lot of gadgets by hand, including a young Kostya. 'I was doing some crazy stuff at home ' trying to make gunpowder, melting metals...' His father gave him a second-hand model railway and he used the electronic parts.
Did he show scientific aptitude at school? 'Ye-es. As far as I remember I was quite keen at doing something technical.' He adds that he got on well with his physics teacher, who would allow him extra use of the school lab.
He was also doing distance learning from Moscow's Institute of Physics and Technology. They would send him problems to solve and he would send results. That way, they hand-picked their students, he says.
Kostya was duly chosen for the Moscow Institute, the best in Russia, he tells me. He can't really remember the title of his Bachelor's degree equivalent ('something to do with power dependence ' not terribly serious') and he has to look up his Masters: Gamma-X tunnelling in GaAs/AlGaAs heterostructures.
Was he also aiming for Holland's University of Nijmegen? Not especially, he says, but progress in his work was proving a bit slow in Russia and the renowned Andre Geim, who was based there at the time, happened to be looking for a PhD student. A mutual friend recommended Kostya.
In Holland, Kostya met Geim's unusual style of research ' jumping from one subject to another across a broad range. Kostya's PhD covered Development and Applications of Mesoscopic Hall Micro Probes. After two years in Holland, the pair moved to Manchester, Geim inviting Kostya for post-doctoral research.
At Manchester, Kostya is currently working on mesoscopic objects ' what is generally termed Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, for example showing quantum effects in electronic transports and magnetism. He has received various awards and grants ' he was a Leverhulme Research Fellow; a Royal Society Research Fellowship currently pays his salary, he says, and a European Research Council grant pays for his equipment. When asked if the awards were for anything specific ' like making a transition from supervisory to independent research, he simply says that continued good research is his aim. So far, he has published over 60 refereed research papers.
How scientists spend their Friday nights
In the past, Geim and Novoselov have investigated things like Mesoscopic Superconductivity, Ferro-magnetism and Gecko Tape. Some of these came out of the famous Friday Evening Experiments, including the Gecko Tape.
This is a micro-fabricated adhesive based on the climbing ability of geckos which adheres to surfaces via millions of microscopic hairs. But it has some drawbacks ' unlike geckos it cannot keep itself clean. When I ask Kostya about this, he says that the refinements are not up to him. 'Sitting down for months and months tweaking small bits is not really my field.'
Another well-known Friday Evening Experiment of Geim's was his levitating frogs (you can watch the magnetic process on YouTube). The duo have also had some interesting results with magnetic water. But the most famous of all the Friday nighter discoveries was, of course, graphene.
Are Friday Nights carrying on? 'We still'do some crazy stuff in comparison with'a normal lab. We still have a much broader perspective.' But these days, most of'it tends to be graphene related, since it's such a wide subject. 'Optical, chemical, mechanical...nobody thought of changing graphene chemically,' Kostya says. His co-authored papers on graphene are the most'cited.
Some other papers he's written have covered electric field effect in thin carbon films, mesoscopic superconductivity and sub-atomic movements of magnetic domain walls in the Peierls Potential. Would he say that graphene was a logical progression from these? Conventionally not, he says. 'Experts in super conductivity would hardly look at something else,' because there's a lot to cover. But to him, it does seem like a logical progression.
The miracle material?
And so we come to graphene, the miracle two-dimensional material. The thinnest, the strongest, the most conductive, the most elastic, the most transparent... 'it's wrong to say the most transparent,' Kostya interrupts, 'It's very transparent, but unusually for a monolayer it is quite optically active. It's very thin and triggers a lot of applications in photonics.' Would he call it a miracle material? 'Yes, if you want.'
Its Friday Evening discovery, the exact moment of isolating graphene, was something of a surprise. They had been experimenting with filing graphite crystals down ' one student had already polished one clean into dust. 'It was quite an expensive piece,' remarks Kostya.
Then technician Igor Sklerevsky demonstrated how to clean graphite. It was known as the Scotch Tape Technique. By means of Sellotape, flakes of graphite could be ripped off with the Sellotape folded over repeatedly, thinning the layer each time. They were subsequently transferred to a glass plate but not much showed up under the microscope.
Geim then found a piece of oxidised silicon with oxide that happened to be just the right thickness. The first micrometre-size samples of graphene were observed and are thin enough to be present in a layer of pencil scribble. This has brought to an end years of attempts to isolate graphene. Many scientists thought that it was impossible for such a thin crystalline material to be stable.
After seven to eight years of research, Novoselov and Geim received the Nobel Prize for graphene's huge potential number of applications. So just how realistic are they? 'If you'd asked me a couple of years ago, I'd say not [very],' says Kostya, 'but now there's huge progress, the applications are very realistic, it's a question of how to produce them.' So here's a rough guide to some of graphene's potentials.
1. Graphene has a hexagonal crystal structure, which ensures that its electrons mimic relativistic physics. So could graphene replace the silicon chip, for instance, in terahertz transistors? (These are what Geim called the holy grail of transistors ' electrons that travel ballistically without colliding or scattering.)
Kostya gives me an analogy: plastic also comes in all sorts of different applications, from cooking pans to the quite expensive composites required for Formula 1. 'We are past the pan stage, the silicon chip is the Formula 1.' He says that chips can be increased to duocore or quadrocore, but there is a limit in the lithography step. Silicon cannot be endlessly miniaturised, whereas graphene has this potential. 'Previously you could improve the material, but the technology is so complex that it will dictate the material for years.' So, though graphene would be better, 'if we don't have the technique, graphene won't help'.
2. Graphene can be used in sensors to detect gas molecules and monitor pollution? 'Another application is strain gauges: graphene is much more elastic than anything else ' it can stretch by 20 per cent and can monitor far strain.
3. Graphene can be used in touch screens? 'Very realistic. Samsung is working on it. They promise their first mobile made of graphene this year or next.'
4. And how can graphene be used in DNA sequencing? 'It would be quicker and cheaper, but whether it's going to be used, I don't know.'
In 2010, two years after receiving the Europhysics Prize 'for discovering and isolating a single free-standing atomic layer of carbon and elucidating its remarkable electronic properties', Geim and Novoselov headed to Sweden to collect their Nobel Prize 'for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene'.
Kostya was the youngest Nobel laureate in Physics since 1971 and the youngest overall since 1992, I tell him. 'I don't know, I never checked,' he says. Geim, meanwhile, has the distinction of receiving an Ig Nobel (for the levitating frogs) prior to the actual Nobel.
I wonder if Kostya did anything exciting with his prize money. 'I didn't have time even to think about it,' he says. After the Nobel, he couldn't do any work at all, he says, due to the sheer volume of press interviews and appearances.
Post-Nobel, Geim puts laureates into two'categories ' those who sit back and put'their feet up, and those who work so hard'that they go mad (perhaps because their'win feels unreal or undeserved). Which group does Kostya fall into, I wonder. 'Probably the second type. We'll see in a couple of years.'
Has he found the coverage detrimental? To the ability to do science, yes, he says. Although, 'we try to be polite'. He adds: 'Now I'm 100 per cent back. For several months I couldn't do anything, so it will be your fault if it drives me mad!' *