Nobel Prize for a simple Experiment?

Many kinds of research prove that even today, there are many lives that die without access to drinking water in some part of the world. Apart from water, we have also been depleting natural resources like oil and natural gas. There is a limitation to such non-renewable resources and someday Earth will run out of it completely. At this juncture, it is critical to think about our survival and sustainability for the future.

“Do Science and Technology have a solution to sustainability?”

The obvious solutions to get more drinking water is desalination and to reduce the usage of fossil fuels is electric vehicles. But establishing a Desalination plant for such magnitude would cost somewhere around 1231 lakh crores rupees. Additionally, operating this plant will require an enormous amount of resource and energy incurring further costs. In the case of an electric vehicle, it could take up to 20 to 30 hours to completely charge a mid-size electric car. So, with this limitation, electric cars don’t appear to be a solution to the fuel crisis. Just imagine how better the world would be if we have a simple water filter that could separate salt from sea water! What if we could charge our smartphones completely in just 5 seconds! How about charging the battery of an electric car in just 30 seconds!

This is not a dream however you will be surprised to know that one stop solution to all these problems is Pencil!

As we know, graphite in the pencil is used for writing which is made of carbon atoms. Using a pencil, let’s draw a line on a paper and observe it through a powerful microscope. At this atomic scale level, the structure looks like a stack of paper having many layers one over the other. Let’s just take one layer from this and observe its structure. It looks like a honeycomb made up of many carbon atoms. The thickness of this layer is equivalent to that of one carbon atom. Therefore, any graphite line on a paper is made up of millions of such layers at a microscopic or atomic scale.

In 2004, Physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov conducted a simple experiment using some graphite particle and a scotch tape. They placed graphite particles over the tape, folded it and separated it and observed the graphite particles being separated. Technically, those millions of layers explained earlier got separated gradually each time. They repeated this experiment plenty of times and each time more and more layers of graphite were separated. And at the end of the experiment, they were left with just one layer of carbon atoms called as ‘Graphene’! This outstanding discovery yielded them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010! Prior to this discovery, scientists strongly believed that it is impossible to extract a single layer of graphite as it is chemically unstable. In spite of that, these two Physicists demonstrated graphene extraction using a simple method which fetched them the honor.

So why is graphene so important? It is the strongest material discovered on Earth so far. So it can be used to build aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, cars, motorcycles, bulletproof jackets, helmets, etc. with high durability. In spite of being stronger, this material is millions of times thinner than a paper, as flexible as rubber and transparent too! Also, graphene is 1000 times a better conductor of electricity compared to copper. Therefore, graphene has the capability to shape up the future of electronics. In the future, using supercapacitors made of graphene as mobile phone batteries could significantly reduce the charging time up to 5 seconds! Similarly, an electric car can be charged in 30 seconds. Various researches have proven that salt ions in water can be easily filtered using graphene materials. A company called Lockheed Martin is already working on a research program to manufacture graphene-based water filter. Even solar panels made of graphene will be able to store solar energy in electrons in the panel itself. On the whole, graphene has got the potential to eradicate the power crisis completely. So this is how it makes sense why this discovery made using pencil and tape deserved Nobel Prize. However, there are huge challenges associated with manufacturing graphene for such commercial purposes.