If the revolution comes, it will have started with Scotch tape, pencil lead, and cosmetic powder.
Physicists first produced graphene—a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms— from humble graphite in 2004. It was the sort of accidental discovery that scientific legends are built on: Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov stuck plain old Scotch tape onto chunks of graphite, a substance found in pencil lead, and peeled it off. Voila, graphene. And for Geim and Noveselov, a Nobel prize.
The technique was so simple that it was soon adapted for high school classrooms, but it never scaled well. In fact, graphene has been maddeningly difficult to manufacture in mass quantities, holding back an entire class of revolutionarily fast, flexible, and tiny electronic devices based on the material.
But graphene dreams just moved one step closer to reality. A recent experiment shows how to make new and unique graphene alloys, which could form the building blocks of miniscule circuits that could power svelte consumer electronics. These kinds of alloys may even form a new class of magnetic materials for sensors. Another group discovered how to produce sheets of pure graphene in large quantities, and peel the finished product without resorting to Scotch tape. Together, these studies, published recently in the journal Science Advances, hint at the possibility of using graphene in new ways on an unprecedented scale.
In the lab of Swastik Kar, lead author of one of the recent papers and a professor of physics at Northeastern University, I find myself staring at a piece of graphene that his group has meticulously deposited on a postage-stamp sized piece of copper foil. It looks like a postage-stamp sized piece of copper foil. With two-dimensional materials, you’ve got to get up close and personal to see what the big deal is about.
Across Kar’s lab, graduate student Anthony Vargas is using a microscope to examine another two-dimensional material called molybdenum disulfide. Magnified 1,000 times, it’s a Picasso-like frenzy of intersecting pink triangles against a magenta background. The triangle theme is neither accident nor artistry—it’s physics, resulting from how the atoms form up in groups and tessellate across the surface. Molybdenum disulfide crystals form triangles, which happen to be neatly compatible with graphene’s hexagons.