An interview with Professor Sir Konstantin ‘Kostya’ Novoselov, FRS, discussing the novel applications of graphene and the likelihood of this fascinating material coming to market.
What makes graphene such an unusual material, and what impact has its discovery had on research?
The unusual thing about graphene is that it’s the first two-dimensional material to be readily available. It’s hard to believe that prior to graphene, we had never been able to work with 2D materials, and now we have so many of them.
Before graphene, nobody believed it would be possible to create and work with a 2D material, so it was a shift in the paradigm.
Graphene had an immense impact on research thanks to a number of very unique properties. It is the most conductive, stretchable, and strongest material in the world. It is also impermeable and transparent, which gives it many everyday applications.
What is the Graphene Flagship project, and how is the consortium helping to bring graphene to market?
It’s always a challenge to bring any new material to market, and nobody really knows how to do it. If you leave it to industry, it could take anywhere between 10 and 30 years before you start seeing that material being used.
The idea behind the Graphene Flagship is that we help companies understand how they could use graphene, and kickstart the process of discovery and development.
Over the past three years, we’ve been concentrating on specific applications of graphene and developing prototypes. We initiate the research into real-world applications, and then pass this information on to the relevant companies.
Currently, the Flagship is in the research and development state, which is stage one. The next stage is to try and get more companies interested in working with graphene and taking over the research, working towards particular applications.
As I said, graphene has a number of superlatives, and that’s a blessing, but it also brings some difficulties. The opportunities for graphene are huge, which makes it difficult to know which area to concentrate on.
We’ve been focusing on very specific developments that are market-driven rather than property-driven, which is very different from many academic research.
Bringing graphene to the stage it is at now, where it is starting to be used by industry, has been quite a difficult process. Many clients want to invent new products using graphene. It’s much easier to improve a product which already exists, rather than coming up with a completely new application.
The other difficulty is that scientists are now working with engineers and product development teams, all of whom don’t usually work together. None of us have been in this situation before, so we're still learning how to work best with industry.
When you first isolated graphene, did you realize how many applications it would have?
No, absolutely not. We were amazed first at the fact that we could isolate something which is only one layer thick, that was a huge discovery for us.
In 2004, our first paper was published but we’d actually been working with graphene for at least one year prior to this. Most of this year was spent working with graphitic films, thinking that we’d never reach the monolayer limit and that even if we did, it wouldn’t be stable. That was the biggest surprise for us.
After this, we (as a community) started to realize one by one, the unique properties that graphene has. It took us several years to discover these properties, and understand how we could use them, and we’re still learning today.
We knew that graphene was special when we isolated it, but we couldn’t possibly predict the impact it would have.
Which uses of graphene have you found most interesting, and why?
There many applications of graphene and a lot of these were presented at the Graphene Flagship Conference.
What I'm really excited about is the potential of graphene; there are so many industries that could benefit from this material. Its applications range from ion separation to biological membranes.
What can we expect from this material in the future?
To be honest, it's very difficult to predict. Over the last few years, a lot of research has been focusing on the applications, but then occasionally, every now and then, we get some surprises in terms of the fundamental science.
For example, the discovery that graphene can be manipulated into a superconductor.
That was a very exciting phenomenon to see.
I'm sure that there will be a lot of new things still to appear in graphene. Of course, we shouldn't forget that one of the most important properties of graphene is that it has opened floodgate for many other 2D materials to be isolated and researched, resulting in a whole family of 2D crystals that we now enjoy. That's a world in its own.
Where can readers find more information?
About Professor Konstantin Novoselov
Professor Sir Konstantin ‘Kostya’ Novoselov FRS was born in Russia in August 1974. He is an expert in condensed matter physics, mesoscopic physics and nanotechnology.
Professor Novoselov a world-renowned physics researcher who is best known for being the first scientist to isolate graphene at The University of Manchester in 2004.
In 2010, Professor Novoselov and Andre Geim were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their “groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene." He was later knighted in 2012 as part of the New Year’s Eve Honors.
Kostya is currently the Langworthy Professor of Physics and Royal Society Research Professor at The University of Manchester.
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