Physics professor Eva Andrei and her research team stumbled upon the mysterious and fascinating carbon structure known as graphene while calibrating a microscope. They were early entrants in the wave of researchers studying a material that could revolutionize fields as diverse as energy production and storage, cancer research, drug delivery, computing, communications, and prosthetics.
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Champion of Graphene
Andrei, who first came to Rutgers as a Ph.D. student in 1978, returned several years later as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Below, this recipient of the Rutgers Board of Trustees Award for Excellence in Research and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences describes her research into the atomic structure of graphene:
Electrons Doing Bizarre Things
"My own entry into the field of graphene research back in 2006 was quite accidental. We were building a scanning tunneling microscope on a shoestring budget. A scanning tunneling microscope can image individual atoms on the surface of a material, and it allows an observer to figure out how electrons move among atoms.
"As any microscope builder knows, the last step before declaring victory is to do a calibration, a gauging of the instrument to a standard scale. For scanning tunneling microsocopists, the calibration of choice is to look at the atoms on the surface of a piece of graphite. In our case, we also had to see what happens when turning on a magnetic field.
"This was when we had our 'Eureka!' moment. We found ourselves staring at a sequence of tall peaks, which left us dumbfounded. The peaks told a story of strange electrons doing bizarre things that they were not supposed to do in graphite. No one had reported seeing such a sequence before.
"I recalled attending, at the 2005 March meeting of the American Physical Society, a presentation by Andre Geim on his isolation of graphene and realized that, by a turn of luck, we were looking at a piece of graphene which, although sitting on the graphite substrate, was not quite 'talking' to it. For all practical purposes we were looking at the most perfect piece of isolated graphene one could imagine."
Graphene is a one-atom thick crystal of carbon arranged in a honeycomb structure. Before its recent rise to prominence, graphene was just a sheet of graphite, the stuff in pencils and in soot, the poor relative of the diamond. You wouldn’t have given it a second look.
But since its isolation from graphite in 2004, by the University of Manchester team of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov (who won a Nobel Prize for their work), graphene has not ceased to amaze.
Graphene has amassed an impressive string of superlatives:
- thinnest material known—a million times thinner than a sheet of paper
- strongest material ever measured—100 times stronger than steel
- record thermal conductivity—outperforming diamond
- highest current density at room temperature—one million times higher than copper
- completely impermeable—even helium atoms cannot squeeze through
- conducts electricity even when it contains no free electrons
- lightest charge carriers (zero rest mass)
- highest intrinsic charge mobility—100 times higher than in silicon
New Arena of Research
In 2006 after our discovery, we started working full steam on understanding the strange and wonderful world of electrons in graphene. We found that these electrons move like rays of light—as if they had no mass at all; that we can get them to do strange things such as banding together to produce particles with fractional charge or behaving the way superconductors do.