In 2004, Manchester University fellow Kostya Novoselov discovered graphene, a fundamentally new molecule that may revolutionize computing. Physicists had previously speculated about the material, theorizing that it could be made into transistors more than a hundred times as fast as today’s silicon devices. But until Novoselov found and tested it, some thought the essentially two-dimensional material would be unstable.
To make graphene, which is a mesh of carbon one atom thick, Novoselov shaves small flakes of graphite, similar to that found in pencils, onto adhesive tape. He then folds the tape over and pulls it apart, splitting the graphite into two thinner flakes. He repeats the process until he has a one-atom-thick sheet.
Since the discovery, Novoselov has made a fast, low-power graphene transistor using techniques from the semiconductor industry. Because they conduct electrons so rapidly, such transistors could lead to faster computers and to specialized communications and imaging technologies such as terahertz-wave imaging, which could be used for medical tests or security applications. A slew of academic and corporate labs have begun working on graphene, but Novoselov and other scientists are still researching practical techniques for making large sheets of it. For now, Novoselov’s pencil-and-tape method is standard. –Katherine Bourzac