And the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, now both at the University of Manchester, for studying single atom-thick sheets of carbon, called graphene. Graphene, skinny enough to be called "two-dimensional", might not have the good looks of fullerine, including the 60 carbon atom buckyballs, that won the 1996 chemistry Nobel, but these sheets have talent. So thin that they exhibit quantum mechanical properties, graphene sheets conduct electricity as well as copper, conduct heat better than any other known material, and are so dense that they can block helium atoms.
The two winners began their careers in Russia before moving to the Netherlands and finally the United Kingdom. In 2004, they pulled the sheets from a graphite crystal simply using adhesive tape--countering nay-sayers who did not believe such a thin crystalline material could remain stable on its own.
From these humble beginnings, graphene has made strides quickly. Here are some recent highlights:
Last month, IEEE Spectrum described new ultracapacitors--batteries' quicker cousins--which use graphene fins for even more speed, since the fins let charge on and off faster than other carbon tangles. This speed could allow portable electronics to shrink in size and weight.
The material's need for speed also appeared in transistor research published last month. A UCLA team built the fastest graphene transistor yet, a proof-of-concept device that switched twice as fast (300 gigahertz) as similar devices. Some hope graphene might prove a faster alternative to silicon chips in future circuits.
Nanometer-scale "bubbles"--formed from stretching graphene--can trap electrons in magnetic field doppelgangers (up to 300 teslas strong), researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory announced this July. This could perhaps usher in the age of "straintronics," controlling electrons' movements by deforming this material.
In the spring, IEEE Spectrum reported that scientists gained a better grasp on why graphene makes nanometer-scale machines so slippery. They found the more of the thin sheets added, the better the lubrication, giving them a better understanding of friction at the atomic level.
Of course, this is only scratching the surface of this material's applications. For more on this Nobel Prize-winning find check out this listing of graphene articles and blog posts. Also be sure to read IEEE Spectrum's November issue, which includes a feature article on the material by Alexander Sinitskii and James M. Tour, describing in detail how graphene might work to compliment (and perhaps even overthrow) silicon in the future.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / AlexanderAIUS