A couple of weeks ago, for a story on material discovery, I was looking for a clear example of serendipity that sometimes graces scientific breakthroughs. Naturally, cisplatin, the first metal-based anticancer agent, popped into my mind—an example I can chat about from dusk till dawn, given it was an important chapter in my research journey. But then, a flicker of memory: the discovery of graphene. My knowledge was patchy at best—something about Scotch Tape and Friday night experiments. So, I took a deeper dive. And oh boy, did I unearth a tale to cherish: Andre Geim’s accounts of magnetic water, gecko toes, the discovery of graphene, and the Nobel Prize. They are full of lessons for scientists and, frankly, for anybody else. So today, dear reader, we sift through the incredible story of the discovery of graphene, the illustrious 2D material of our era. Stick with me, and let’s unravel this tape.
What’s So Special About Graphene, Anyway?
Everyone is familiar with the pencil, that marvelous instrument wielded by poets to scribble, and sometimes erase, their most regrettable verses. Pencils are made of graphite—a form of carbon arranged in parallel sheets, weakly bound to each other via van der Waals interactions. Subject it to the right conditions, and it transforms into a diamond. Interestingly, given enough time—about 1 billion years—a diamond will revert to graphite.
So much for diamonds being forever, huh?
Now, if you could manipulate graphite in just the right way, you’d isolate the thinnest and lightest material known to humankind—a material that is 100 times stronger than steel and an unparalleled conductor of both electricity and heat.
All this wonder is packed into a single layer of carbon atoms. That wonder, dear reader, is graphene.
And that’s why, in recent years, graphene, with its remarkable structural, electronic, and thermal properties, has sparked a gold rush in a variety of fields, from electronics to biomedical engineering, from the aerospace to the energy industry.
Now, you might be thinking, “It’s just pencil, man!” How hard can it be to get graphene out of graphite?
It’s not that hard. And yet, it literally took centuries.
So, grab your notebook and your pencil (ok, bad joke) and let’s journey through a brief history of graphene.
Further reading: Graphene Properties, Synthesis and Applications: A Review – 2023
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Graphene—Before the Discovery of Graphene
Our tale begins in 1859 with British chemist Benjamin Brodie. Through his experiments with strong acids and graphite, he obtained a material that he called “carbonic acid.” He believed he’d stumbled upon a novel form of carbon, “graphon.” In reality he was observing tiny crystals of graphene oxide—graphene sheets densely covered with oxygen-rich functional groups.
For a whole century, scientists poked this peculiar material, but it wasn’t until 1948 that Ruess and Vogt had an “aha!” moment: this “carbonic acid” was made up of floating atomic planes. Using transmission electron microscopy, they identified tiny flakes, with some measuring just a few nanometers in thickness. Hofmann’s team picked up the baton, and by 1962, Boehm had characterized some of these flakes as carbon monolayers.
Funny how sometimes science works. Despite the significance of these observations, they barely made a ripple and didn’t capture widespread attention until decades later.
Meanwhile, theoreticians weren’t exactly in the dark. Even before experimentalists had a clear picture, Wallace was busy calculating graphene’s band structure, while Semenoff and Haldane saw these unique configurations of carbon as theoretical models to explore quantum electrodynamics.
Accelerating into the 1990s, there were notable frontrunners in the graphene race: Kurz, who reported “peeling optically thin layers with transparent tape” (read Scotch Tape); Ebbesen and Hiura, spotting an “origami-like” structure; and, come 2003, Gan’s group, who managed to lay their hands on the elusive monolayers.
While these studies gradually nudged the scientific community in the right direction, none truly ignited the graphene mania that we’re experiencing today. Why? Perhaps because these experiments were primarily observational. They identified ultra-thin graphite films and occasionally monolayers but didn’t quite illuminate any of graphene’s standout properties.
But then, 2004 hit, and boy, did the scientific landscape shift! Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov unleashed a seismic paper.
They managed to isolate graphene crystals large enough not just for a quick peek under the microscope, but for rigorous and extensive testing. Now, remember Kurz? He was onto something. Because Geim and Novoselov’s big secret was good old Scotch Tape! Yes, that’s right: they used it to peel back layers, isolating graphene for all its glory.
In the age of multi-billion-dollar experiments, like the Large Hadron Collider finding the Higgs boson or the magnificent LIGO detecting gravitational waves, graphene discovery truly stands out.
So, how exactly did Geim and Novoselov pull this off? Well, stick around. That’s what we are going to explore together.
Further reading: The rise of graphene – 2007
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The Random Walk to the Discovery of Graphene
Ah, dear reader, allow me to introduce you to Andre Geim. What a character. Andre Geim is something else – not just rocking a Nobel Prize but also a connoisseur of happy little accidents in the science world. Reading his Nobel lecture, you’ll be tossed into a tornado of tales, from wonderfully wacky experiments to the elegant discovery of graphene. And get this: all this magic happened on Friday nights, just as everyone’s weekend was kicking off.
Magnetic Water and Levitating Frogs
Andre Geim’s 15-year graphene adventure began with the intriguing idea of “magnetic water.” Mostly unfolding on Fridays and mostly driven by curiosity. See, Geim believed that venturing into new directions, even randomly, is more fruitful than deep diving into well-trodden areas.
Picture this: Geim, casually pouring water into a buzzing electromagnet, and surprise, hovering water! With a dash of playful experimenting, he showed that water, despite having a weak magnetic response, could levitate and defy Earth’s gravity.
Among all the things he got floating in the magnet, it was a levitating frog that really grabbed the media’s attention. This seemingly odd demonstration evolved into a symbol of diamagnetism’s omnipresence, challenging its apparent weakness. This work garnered Geim the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize!
Poking in new directions, even randomly, is more rewarding than is generally perceived. We are probably digging too deep within established areas, leaving plenty of unexplored stuff under the surface, just one poke away.Andre Geim
Friday Night Experiments: Gecko Toes and Cellular Heartbeats
Who says scientists don’t know how to have fun on a Friday night? Andre Geim’s Friday night experiments weren’t about hitting a bullseye every time. Nope, they were a mixed bag of lateral thinking, close calls, and unexpected “Aha!” moments.
Take the quest to hear the “heartbeat” of individual cells. The plan was to listen in on the electrical signals from a living cell. While he couldn’t catch a cell’s live heartbeat, he witnessed a dramatic voltage spike at its last breath when doused with too much alcohol. And here’s the irony: four years later, others nailed this experiment using sensors made from graphene. But that’s another story.
Back to Geim. Every little stumble only seemed to stoke the fires of his enthusiasm. Amongst all these exciting tales from Friday night experiments, one story sticks – quite literally. We’re talking about the “Gecko toes” experiment.
You know, geckos can climb walls thanks to microscopic hairs on their toes, each producing teeny tiny attractive van der Waals attractions, but collectively creating a super-strong grip. Geim and team tried to recreate this by developing a material with similar stickiness. And they did it! Their material showed some remarkable stick, although it didn’t quite match up to the real gecko toe and wore out after a couple of uses.
Daring to try might not always pay off, but sometimes it could lead you right to the Nobel Prize.
Further reading: Geim’s Random Walk to Graphene (Nobel Lecture) – 2011
The Discovery of Graphene: stumbling upon a Nobel Prize
It’s Autumn 2002, and Geim’s cooking up a PhD project for his new student, Da Jiang. Little did he know, this ordinary academic musing was about to roll into another unexpected science adventure that, this time, would culminate in a game-changing breakthrough.
Geim found himself mulling over three seemingly disconnected ideas: the old-school charm of “metallic electronics,” the intriguing puzzle of carbon nanotubes, and the slightly mysterious nature of graphite. Meshing these thoughts together, he crafted a quirky project for Da Jiang, to make films of graphite as thin as possible. Because, why not?
After months of nose-to-the-grindstone work, our young scholar Da Jiang rolled out a speck of graphite that was a tad too thick. Between a bit of the old language barrier and a classic mix-up (oops! wrong graphite type used for the experiment), they found themselves in a slightly sticky, thicky situation.
It’s at this point that Oleg Shklyarevskii, a wizard with scanning tunneling microscopy expertise, enters our story. Oleg casually approached Geim and showed him a piece of Scotch Tape salvaged from the trash, which happened to be speckled with graphite flakes. Although Geim had been using the Scotch Tape technique for years, he had never closely examined what was discarded along with the tape. However, this time, as he peered through the microscope at the remnants of graphite, he stumbled upon pieces even thinner than Da Jiang’s speck.
Who needs fancy polishing techniques when good ol’ Scotch Tape does the trick?
Making graphene with the Scotch Tape technique
1. Take a graphite piece.
2. Apply Scotch Tape to the graphite surface and peel off to split layers.
3. Repeat the stick-and-peel process multiple times to thin down the graphite layers.
4. Use a microscope to find single or few-layer graphene flakes on the tape.
5. Transfer the graphene flakes to a substrate (like silicon dioxide on a silicon wafer) for analysis and further experiments.
Next up, Kostya Novoselov took charge, steering Geim’s random walk to the final destination. As he transferred graphite to glass slides, and then oxidized Si wafers, he observed fragments so thin they were almost transparent. When Novoselov and Geim began probing the electrical properties of these graphite fragments, their hand-made devices displayed unexpected conductivity, setting Geim’s scientific pulse racing.
This was pivotal. The electric response illuminated the distinct electronic behavior of graphene and its potential for a wide range of technological applications. So, if those hand-made graphene devices were already showing promising results, what might happen if they used their ultra-thin crystals and deployed a full arsenal of top-tier experimental tools?
This was Geim’s true Eureka moment.
So, with determination and grit, Geim and Novoselov got down to the nitty-gritty. Eager but cautious, they analyzed more than 50 ultrathin graphene devices and by the chilly winds of 2003, a reliable experimental picture finally emerged, ready and robust for publication.
The journey to press was anything but smooth. A stinging rejection from Nature, citing a lack of “significant scientific advance,” could have derailed them. But our brilliant duo, with a polished and spruced-up manuscript, eventually saw their breakthrough published in Science.
And as they say, the rest is history.
Geim and Novoselov were honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene,” turning a random walk into a monumental scientific triumph.
Further reading: Geim’s Random Walk to Graphene (Nobel Lecture) – 2011
A Final personal touch
While writing this story, I almost felt like I was having a chat with Andre Geim. His eyes lighting up with that particular sparkle of someone who’s found true love in the folds of science, all while sharing tales of levitating frogs, gecko toes, and Scotch Tape.
The accounts in his Nobel lecture are personal, vivid, and downright honest. They carry more than just the thrill of scientific breakthroughs—these stories bear heartfelt lessons that touch us in profound ways.
Personally, I’ve learned from Geim not to be disheartened by the echoing footsteps of predecessors. If someone before you has tried and failed, it doesn’t mean the path is impossible; it doesn’t mean you won’t find success where others haven’t.
The final breakthrough is not a goal. It’s rather a wonderful side effect of curiosity, ingenuity, and persistence. These are fundamental traits that might not only lead you to a scientific discovery but also make your human existence more fulfilling.
So here we are, my friend. Keep poking around, keep asking “what if.” Why not? Run a Friday night experiment.
Whether in science, in the arts, or in life, have the courage to take a random walk.
If you enjoyed this dive into the discovery of graphene, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Agree, disagree, or have a totally wild theory of your own? Let’s connect! Subscribe to my LinkedIn newsletter and let’s keep the conversation rolling.