Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov have won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their graphene experiments. The two scientists are appreciated for their innovative, almost playful approach to study and discovery; and of course for getting results. Specifically, the coveted Nobel Prize was awarded Geim and Novoselov “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.”
Geim and Novoselov notably created a “super sticky tape” seven years ago, apparently inspired by a gecko’s ability to stick to impossibly smooth surfaces.
“These were just a couple of guys driven by their curiosity, doing what they thought was interesting, and invented this amazing material,” said Laurence Eaves, a physics professor at the University of Nottingham in Britain in a report.
Graphene and circuits, TVs and sensors
MIT called graphene the “strongest material in the world.” No one has really doubted it. Graphene can be conceived of as a one-atom-thick sheet of bonded carbon atoms — packed in a honeycomb-style crystal lattice.
Recently a teenager had read some popular science and wanted to know if graphene would be the material that one day builds an umbilical chord, or a “beanstalk,” from earth to an orbiting space station; I couldn’t tell her it was completely out of the question. Graphene certainly has potential for many uses in construction material, but that level of mainstream adoption appears a ways off yet. For now though, graphene is known for being a strong material with applications in circuitry and television advancements. Graphene is, after thin and strong, an “excellent conductor.”
Electrons move through graphene quite quickly, making it fantastic material for manufacturing integrated circuits. Integrated circuits, or microchips, are very small electronic circuits consisting primarily of semiconductor devices – along with some passive components. These chips are the spine of modern telecommunications.
Graphene developments are indeed under way in several areas, including in a range of aerospace possibilities, starting with lighter airplanes. Also, on October 16, 2010, PC World reported that graphene “spin computers” could mean faster and smaller gadgets.
But most urgently it seems: graphene has elevated the pursuit of better TV screens. Not exactly the stuff of space-science-fiction, but no one yet has complained about better TV technology, either. Notably: researchers this year made rectangular sheets of graphene 76 centimeters (diagonal) and then used the sheets to create an operable touch-screen display.
Graphene — interestingly — makes an excellent sensor. This gets slightly complicated, but graphene has a 2D structure, which means it is entirely exposed to its environment. “No boundaries!” As such, molecule detection is indirect: as a gas molecule adsorbs to the surface of graphene, the location of absorption experiences a local change in electrical resistance (apt description from Wikipedia). Those local changes are easy to measure and track.
Researchers recently uncovered a quartet of graphene’s electron states — findings were published in the September 9, 2010 issue of Nature magazine. Also announced was the discovery that electrons in graphene can split up into different energy levels when exposed to extremely low temperatures and extremely high magnetic fields. An electron in any given energy level populates four possible sub-levels. The four possible sub-levels are called a “quartet.” The experiment revealed complex behavior of electrons in a high magnetic field at extremely low temperatures. The way the electrons interact with each other under such conditions affects their energy levels. The upshot? Graphene may be more interesting than we thought. The instrument used for the experiment was, notably, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
The so-called “material of the future,” graphene has already captured the imaginations of many amateur commentators — and there is basis in fact for big-dreaming. Meanwhile, the EPA as well as international regulatory bodies are scrambling to put their regulations in order.
Graphene, nanomaterials, and environmental regulations
The United States is the world’s leader in nanotechnology, says the ACS, but it reports that first place position may be threatened by China, South Korea, and the European Union. This is according to a report released earlier this year by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST). The March 2010 report prepared for the White House and Congress recommends several changes to the government’s inter-agency program that coordinates federally funded nanotechnology R&D, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).
Key recommendations of the report include:
- increasing investments in nanomanufacturing and product commercialization to encourage new nanotech products to enter the marketplace
- increasing the number of workers with expertise in nanofabrication
- strengthening commitments to environmental, health, and safety (EHS) research for more sensible regulations
EPA puts graphene under TSCA
The U.S. EPA or Environmental Protection Agency regulates nanotechnology by two different laws:
- the Federal Fungicide, Insecticide & Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)
- the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
The two are managed under two different offices. Regulation for nanoscale materials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene is under EPA’s toxics office, under TSCA.
“EHS considerations have to be a part of all of our work in nanotechnology,” echoed Jeff Morris, national program director for nanotechnology in EPA’s Office of Research & Development. Regulation of graphene and other areas of nanotech will become more successful “when EHS research is no longer considered a separate area, but rather an integral part of all we do as we advance nanotechnology,” Morris said.
And, as usual, various international entities — think RoHS — and individual U.S. states are taking regulatory legislation matters into their own hands.
California puts graphene under Green Chemistry
A recently proposed California Law addresses the regulation of nanomaterials. One aspect of the proposed regulatory initiative is that it defines a “chemical” to mean any of the following:
- a chemical substance
- a chemical mixture
Graphene, of course, is under the nanomaterial clause.
A “nanomaterial” is here [in the California proposal] defined as “any form of an intentionally engineered chemical, substance or material that is intended to be composed of a discrete nanostructure that meets either of the following criteria: 1. at least one spatial dimension of the nanostructure is at the nanoscale, or 2. the nanostructure is larger than nanoscale in any spatial dimension, but is 1000 nanometers or less in at least one spatial dimension, and the nanostructure exhibits one or more nanoscale phenomena.” (Above is from a nice October 12, 2010 write-up by Edgcomb Law Group.)
The proposed regulation, also known as California Green Chemistry, defines the terms “Nanoscale”, “Nanoscale phenomena” and “Nanostructure. Because of the unique properties of nanomaterials, DTSC is gathering information on nanotechnology and monitoring the efforts of other regulatory agencies about this emerging technology. All eyes are on January 2011 for more concrete regulatory parameters out of California. For more, review the extensive material DTSC web portal.
We’ll certainly keep you posted here on this blog.
The bottom line
The bottom line for this story really isn’t money right now. The Nobel prize in Physics was announced Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. The Associated Press reported that Laurence Eaves, a physics professor at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said the two scientists who received the award, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, demonstrated how science should be done.
If I may summarize “how science should be done” it might be: Wonder, Experiment, Discover, Innovate.
And then, of course, Regulate. But all that follows in the shadows of the excitement of new discovery. Nice to have some excitement once in a while. From my perch it appears that graphene may really deserve the hype, and probably also deserves the regulations. May they find, together, some peace.