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Imagine a cheese slicer so precise that it could shave a layer of cheddar no thicker than a single atom. That gives a sense of what scientists at Britain's University of Manchester have done to many materials, including graphite, using a process called micromechanical cleavage.
The resulting 2D ultrathin sheets are stable at room temperature and extremely pure. They could be useful in everything from antirust coatings to single-molecule components for electronics. "This may well be a revolutionary discovery," says Vladimir Falko, a professor at nearby Lancaster University. So far, the Manchester team has created prototypes of a chemical sensor and one of the smallest and fastest transistors.
The next challenge will be to make the material easier to work with at sizes of about one-hundredth of a millimeter in diameter. Real-world uses may be a decade away.
Dr. Kostya Novoselov, a lead scientist in the Manchester team, recently talked to Rachel Tiplady, a writer in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau, about this discovery. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What's the significance of your discovery?
A: To quote my colleague, Professor Andre Geim, the harnessing of these 2D structures, which are incredibly high-quality materials, could be as significant as the invention of polymers. That's to say, if it's picked up and developed by private industry, it could lead to faster, more efficient production of a whole range of new and existing applications.
Q: Such as?
A: Depending on the bulk material used, we could create the best conductors or insulators or magnets. Graphene, for example -- which is what we called the 2D version of graphite we discovered -- can carry huge currents and yet is very light, highly flexible and strong.
So that could be used in a wide-range of electronic items to make them faster and smaller. Other possible applications of 2D materials include a windshield wiper coating that's totally waterproof, but ultra-thin.
Q: Why haven't 2D structures been found before?
A: Perhaps because we didn't look for them -- scientists previously thought that such thin materials would be highly unstable when they were exposed to air. That was probably one of our most surprising discoveries -- that these structures remain stable and flat in ambient temperature.
Q: What's next?
A: We're a very small team and don't have the ability to go very fast, but perhaps the next step is to find more bulk materials to apply our technique to. The possibilities are endless.