What’s a pencil got to do with an ultra-new TV screen?

A team of scientists in Manchester  who won a nobel prize for physics last year, are being sponsored to the tune of £50 million to develop their idea for commercial exploitation.  Is it an alternative energy source?  Is it a new genetically altered food? Is it a view of the universe previously unseen? Sorry, I’m mixing up my modalities here as that’s chemistry, biology, and astrophysics so far, they won for physics… but no, its none of these anyway!!

The team under Andre Geim, and Konstantin Novoselov (from the names, not from around Manchester, are they?  Lucky they decided to do their research locally though!)  have discovered ways of working with graphite (you know, cheap old pencil lead?) in VERY thin sheets – as in, peel a layer off with some sticky tape – which is literally where they started.  This developed into a concept of atom thin sheets of graphite – which, it turns out after centuries of academic thinkers using graphite to record their thoughts, is a sustainable and cheap material which can be used to manufacture electrical and computerized goods and even make plastic cheaper and stronger.

“Wafer thin” (or substantially thinner, at just an atom thick if they can get that right) graphite is many things – its very strong, very flexible, can conduct electricity a million times better than copper.  As it can stretch more than other conductors its useful to replace rare, firm and expensive minerals.  It also has a fascinating property of being more transparent to visible light than any other known conductor.

It’s already been used to create a flexible touchscreen, and Samsung are experimenting with television screen sized sheets, could be used to create transparent cabin wall membranes in aircraft allowing passengers to see out – potential uses are infinite!

Its one of the great discoveries of this century so far – and the truly brilliant thing is that the hard-pressed British coalition government, with all their economic woes, have been able to see the potential (not least of which is high-tech industry and well-paying jobs!!) and put real money behind the development of the idea.

It’s a wonderful paragraph in the ongoing saga of the humble pencil — used to write underwater, in zero gravity, and in the dark… as any Eureka moment scientist will confirm!!


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