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Sharing a Nobel Prize at 36

Courtesy of Konstantin Novoselov

The research that won the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics was unusual in several ways. First -- as noted in headlines worldwide -- one of the keys to the work was Scotch tape. Second was the material itself: graphene, a single, atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged neatly in a honeycomb lattice. Graphene is "the first truly two-dimensional atomic crystal," says Konstantin Novoselov, one of the prize winners.

"At that time, ... I doubt I understood that it would go that far," Konstantin Novoselov says.

A third unusual characteristic of the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics is the age of one of the winners. Half a century ago, it wasn't unusual for physicists to win the prize in their 30s or even in their 20s; the youngest winner ever was 25; he was Lawrence Bragg, who won with his father, William, in 1915. But these days it's rare for such a young scientist to win a Nobel. Novoselov, who was 36 when the King of Sweden handed him his medal, is the youngest physics laureate since Brian Josephson in 1973.

Going for breadth

Novoselov was the junior partner in this Nobel Prize–winning pair. The senior partner, Andre Geim, was Novoselov's Ph.D. adviser. Geim, of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, is the first individual researcher ever to win both a Nobel Prize and an Ig Nobel Prize. Geim won the Ig Nobel 10 years earlier for levitating a live frog.

Long before he encountered Geim, Novoselov was born in Russia to an engineer father and a mother who was an English teacher. He demonstrated an interest in technical things early in his life. As a high school student, he spent some of his free time solving math and physics problems for a distance-learning school run by the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology State University. He later joined that university for a 6-year M.Sc. degree, graduating cum laude in 1997.

Novoselov then started a Ph.D. with Yurij Dubrovskii at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Microelectronics Technology and High Purity Materials in Chernogolovka, near Moscow. There, he studied electronic transport in mesoscopic systems -- systems in the transitional range between the atomic and microscopic scales. Novoselov focused on electron tunneling in one- or two-dimensional nanostructures. Among many other things, he learned how to make and measure micro- and nanoelectronic devices.

Three papers and 2 years in, Dubrovskii, who was a regular visitor to Geim's group, gave Novoselov a little push. Geim recalls that on one visit, Dubrovskii said to him, "OK, there is a good guy in Chernogolovka and he seems to be wasting his life there. Would you be able to arrange a Ph.D. position for him?" Geim took Novoselov on for a 2-month trial in his lab, which was based at the time at the High Field Magnet Laboratory in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, then invited him to stay. Geim found Novoselov "hard-working, well-educated, and able to learn ... quickly from me and from others," he says.

Novoselov started a new Ph.D. in the Netherlands, still in mesoscopic materials but shifting his focus to superconductivity and ferromagnetism. The equipment was "a little bit better," but the main advantage over his Russian experience was Geim's approach to research, Novoselov says. Geim encourages scientists in his lab to work on a wide range of projects, contributing to each other's work and tackling new topics every 3 or 6 months. "It was this flexibility and the opportunity to try yourself in different areas which was interesting, and you learn much more this way," Novoselov says. When, in 2001, Geim took a new position in Manchester, Novoselov followed him.

Homing in on graphene

Research on graphene started out as a "Friday night experiment" -- the phrase used in the Geim lab to describe investigations that were considered slightly crazy. The reference is to the time of week Geim first tried the experiment that led to his Ig Nobel Prize. Graphite is a multilayer of graphene sheets bound together by weak forces. The scientists hoped to separate graphite into the thinnest possible layers. Geim says that the idea of using Scotch tape came from Oleg Shklyarevskii, who was working in the lab on a scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) project. Scotch tape is frequently used to clean graphite before that material is measured as a reference, so it's commonly found in STM labs. The tape allowed Geim and Novoselov to pull off very fine graphite flakes and eventually make and identify graphene monolayers. Together with other researchers in the lab, Geim and Novoselov made devices out of the graphene sheets and showed that they behaved as metallic field-effect transistors. Also unusual was the electrons' ability to travel submicron distances in the material with almost no electrical resistance. The work was reported in a Science paper in 2004.

Courtesy of Konstantin Novoselov

Altogether, it took "a year of hard research" to isolate graphene and characterize those first electronic properties, Novoselov says. The material "was very new, very unusual." Even if there was no thought that the work might be worthy of a Nobel, it was clear that they were on to something important, Novoselov says. You "get excited every time you see [a] new behavior and [a] new property of those samples," Novoselov says. Still, "at that time, ... I doubt I understood that it would go that far."

Since then, Geim, Novoselov, and other researchers have demonstrated even more remarkable properties. For example, "electrons ... in this material mimic relativistic particles, and that's very unusual for [a] condensed-matter system," Novoselov says. Also, graphene is "the thinnest material and its electronic [properties] are interesting, but it's also the strongest material, so you would be interested in studying its mechanical properties. It's also very optically active," and its chemical derivatives could also be potentially very interesting, he says. Research in graphene, its properties, and potential applications has since exploded.

Spread thin

Novoselov has "moved very, very quickly" from "mentored to completely independent researcher," Geim says. He finished his Ph.D. after he arrived in Manchester for his postdoc, graduating from the University of Nijmegen in 2004. That same year, he won an Early Career Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, followed by a Royal Society Research Fellowship in 2006 that allows him to concentrate fully on research, he says. Then, in 2008, he obtained a Starting Grant from the European Research Council to pursue his research on the physics and applications of graphene.

Today, his position at the University of Manchester is "pretty much permanent," Novoselov says, and graphene keeps him busy. Indeed, the diversity of its properties is such that Novoselov and Geim work on 10 or 20 projects simultaneously, many requiring new techniques or new collaborations. Even though Novoselov is now independent, the two researchers share labs, Ph.D. students, and postdocs.

Novoselov plans to gradually cut back his work on graphene to just 40% of his time. "Although it's very varied, it's becoming a little bit predictable and very crowded. And you have to really work very, very fast to do anything novel in this field, so I would prefer to try to explore other directions which are not that popular yet."

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