Sir Konstantin ‘Kostya’ Novoselov at Monash University, Clayton. Novoselov jointly won a Nobel prize in 2010, after he isolated graphene. Photo: Eddie JimIt may centre on logic and physics, but Sir Kostya Novoselov is adamant on the unpredictability of science.
After all, it was in a moment of experimentation outside their regular research that he and colleague Andre Geim made the discovery that would earn them a joint Nobel Prize in 2010.
Who knew that something so simple as using a piece of sticky tape to peel a layer from a block of graphite, then peeling the layer again and again to make it progressively thinner, would yield the holy grail in materials research, the single-atom-thick carbon substance called graphene?
Stronger than diamond, lighter than a feather, more conductive than copper, flexible and transparent – it would take the rejection of two papers before the scientific community believed what sounded too good to be true.
“That’s part of the reason why it [graphene research] spread so quickly across the world — you only need some good graphite and some sticky tape,” he told Fairfax Media.
The discovery came in 2004 but the next major breakthrough will be in how to produce it on a commercial scale and realise its seemingly magical potential.
Graphene’s super-thin, lightweight, flexible structure and highly conductive properties mean it is poised to revolutionise numerous sectors from electronics and energy storage to manufacturing and biomedicine. It’s graphene that will make wacky concepts like foldable, fast-charging smartphones and lightweight, energy-efficient aircraft possible.
“It might take five, 10, 15 years before we know how to grow it in large areas – although, we had the same feeling about isolating graphene 10 years [or so] ago and the progress since then has been really enormous,” Novoselov says.
In pursuit of its potential, the British government has funded two flagship graphene research centres to the tune of £121 million ($260 million) at the University of Manchester, where Novoselov and Geim are based.
Among the growing list of companies partnering with the centres are Samsung, Sharp, Huawei, Lockheed Martin, Rolls-Royce, GlaxoSmithKline, Siemens and Dyson.
But it’s Asia, home of consumer electronics manufacturing, and with most of the world’s graphite deposits in China, that is tipped to drive growth. A recent report put the Chinese graphene market at about $6.4 million, with compound annual growth at 95 per cent annually to 2020.
Some companies already dabbling: Samsung claims it has made longer-lasting batteries with graphene components, while a few Chinese companies are marketing smartphones with graphene touchscreens. It’s also being used in lightweight tennis racquets, and a University of Manchester spinout says it will be selling energy efficient graphene light bulbs soon.
But Novoselov isn’t moved by mere gadgets, or improving things we already make. He’s interested in making completely new things that only graphene or its composites make possible.
“Applications in bio- and life-science are the most interesting and most promising,” he says.
“We’re definitely going to see more and more nanomedicines being used, whether it’s sensors or drug delivery or artificial tissues.”
Because graphene can be made porous at the molecular level, it is set to have new applications in filtration processes and protective coatings. Think clean air and water like never before; houses that don’t corrode; packaging that preserves food much longer.
Australia is jostling for its position on this new frontier, with scientists countrywide researching applications for the material, and new explorations for graphite deposits.
The University of Adelaide has a graphene research group, and this week Monash University both opened a dedicated research centre and sponsored an international conference in Lorne, Victoria attracting some 250 graphene experts frome home and abroad, including Novoselov.
An Australian National University spinout, 2Dfab Innovations, is producing and exploring the uses of graphene in wearable technologies.
Novoselov can’t stress enough the importance of training in these new materials; for example, not just training today’s electrical engineers in how to work with silicon.
“The point is that it’s technology, and technology evolves,” he says.
“The only way you can compete is to maintain a healthy level of science in the country and then there is a good chance the next best technologies are going to be produced here.”
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