A man of substance – Andre Geim, father of graphene

Andre Geim bows after receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / AP / PA Images

“Two scientists walk into a bar,” I tell Nobel Laureate Sir Andre Geim. “One says, I’ll have a glass of H2O. The other one says, I’ll have a glass of H2O too. The barman hands over the drinks. They knock them back. The second scientist keels over and dies.”

The father of graphene meets my icebreaker with a bemused face and a raised eyebrow. “Ah,” he says, after a long pause during which I feel my 
toes start to curl. “It’s a chemistry joke. Not a physics joke, but yeah… 
Very good.” I’d tried out my favourite hydrogen peroxide gag because Sir Andre Geim is notorious for his sense of humour. This is, after all, a scientist who named his hamster, H.A.M.S. ter Tisha, as co-author in one of his papers and who won an Ig Nobel prize for making a frog fly.

That said, Geim is not one to suffer fools gladly. “I often repeat the phrase: ‘I like individual humans but I hate the human race,’” he says. “If you think, you probably share 
the same opinion. You see what we have done to the planet. How we destroy everything. When I hear anything about global warming, especially when politicians or other scientists are raising questions 
about global warming I switch TV channels… For god’s sake, there is global warming and yes, it is caused by humans.” He sighs. “It really gets on my nerves how stupid we remain as a race.”

I was incredibly smart at the age of 20. I wish I had remained that smart” — Andre Geim

His disdain for idiocy is not limited to mankind. “I am not a big fan of the orang-utan,” he deadpans at one point in our interview after I mention my love of the animal and a personal pilgrimage to see them in Borneo. 
“It is a stupid animal. It looks nice but it’s not very smart. Chimpanzees are really what I recommend. That’s our close relative. They are bloody 
smart, okay.”

Geim himself is indisputably bloody smart, okay. In his autobiography for the Nobel Prize, he recounts how, as a young man, he was asked in an oral exam to estimate the weight of the earth’s atmosphere. He stunned his examiners by giving an exact figure in trillions of kilograms, which he had calculated in his head in three minutes. “I was incredibly smart at the age of 20,” he says. “I wish I had remained that smart. Many people stay smarter than I am but it’s a lot of work, and life in science is a marathon, it’s not a 100-metre race.”

It would take an elephant balanced on a pencil to break through a single sheet of graphene”

Geim’s first step in his 
scientific marathon took him from his 
birthplace, in the small Black Sea resort of Sochi, to the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (Phystech) in the 1970s. I ask him what the 
atmosphere was like. “It was 
totalitarian,” he replies. “It was a great school in terms of physics but… it was too tough. Some people went crazy. Some kids were suicidal. There was a lot of physiological pressure [which caused] psychiatric problems.” In his autobiography he says that his own sanity “was perhaps saved by the amount of alcohol that I and some of my friends consumed after each exam to release the 
accumulated stress.”

After Phystech, Geim had a brief stint at the University of Nottingham before being appointed associate professor at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. It was here that he started his “Friday night experiments”, an opportunity to try out simple, fun pieces of research that aren’t directly related to his day job. The first experiment to show real promise involved using an 
electromagnet to levitate a frog, an exercise which earned him huge 
media coverage and an Ig Nobel prize (stated aim: “to first make people laugh, and then make them think”) 
in 2000.

Andre Geim, left, and fellow Nobel Prize winner Dr Konstantin Novoselov. Photo: Jon Super / AP / PA Images

He moved on to the University of Manchester in 2001, where he conducted Friday night experiments into gecko toes. A team of Californian scientists had claimed that geckoes are able to climb walls because their toes are covered with billions of tiny hairs which produce ‘Van der Waals’ intermolecular forces. In a 2003 proof-of-concept study, Geim managed to produce a small patch of ‘gecko tape’ which operates on the same principles, and demonstrated its stickiness by hanging a Spider-Man model from the lab roof. Similar experiments took place across the world for the next decade, and materials capable of hanging flatscreen TVs from tiny, ultra-adhesive squares look set to hit the market soon.

It was at Manchester, a year after the successful gecko experiment, that Geim and his team succeeded in isolating a single layer of graphite, which he named “graphene”, through experiments which included using strips of Sellotape to gather samples from pencil tips.

“Graphene,” says Geim, “was in front of our eyes and under our noses. Draw a pencil line and it’s in there. You don’t need to go to university, you just need a reasonably good 
microscope to see it in your pencil trace.” He compares the breakthrough to the discovery of planets. “Wandering stars had been known to the Greeks for thousands of years,” he tells me. “They called them ‘Planetas’ – which is where the word ‘planets’ comes from, but it took Copernicus to put the meaning into the word.”

 

The wonder material

Geim’s 2D discovery is garlanded with superlatives. It is the strongest material known to science, 300 times stronger than steel. It would take an elephant balanced on a pencil to break through a single sheet of graphene as thin as cling film. It is harder than diamond. It is also the lightest known material. And there’s more: it’s flexible, almost transparent, superconductive (electricity flows through graphene much faster than copper or any other material) and allows nothing to pass through except for water. All this and it’s only one atom thick.

The ‘2D’ atomic structure of Graphene

Graphene has a vast number of potential applications. As Geim says, it’s “a very big patch of grass in which to put a lot of stakes”. We could soon be seeing wafer-thin televisions, equally slender mobile phones, and touch screens that are bendable, allowing you to roll them up and take them out with you.

Then there is the possibility of longer-lasting batteries which, for example, could revolutionise the future of electric cars, making them more efficient and affordable to run. Graphene can be used as an anti-corrosion coating 
on metals that is transparent, thinner and longer lasting than anything 
else on the market. It can also filter the salt out of seawater, offering a cheap and easy way to provide clean drinking water.

The most lucrative prospect, however, is its potential to replace silicon in computer chips, making them smaller and more compact, and providing for faster, 
higher-performing computers. Professor Geim believes that graphene is going to be a disruptive technology. Early predictions back up his view, with the Financial Times estimating that by 2022 the graphene industry will be worth £300 billion.

[In 2015 auditors Deloitte Global assessed the graphene industry and predicted the material would remain at the prototype stage for the following decade, estimating the worth of the graphene materials market worldwide during 2016 as “likely to be in the low tens of millions of dollars”.]

With so much power behind a material I wonder what the negative implications could be, and ask Professor Geim if graphene could ever be misused. I mention fictional 
scientists such as Frankenstein, but am really thinking about what happened when the atomic bomb was developed. Does he feel a sense of responsibility for whatever happens with graphene?

“Everything has the potential to cause a disaster,” he says. “For example, we know nuclear power has the potential to cause a big disaster. It’s not science but our use of science that causes the disaster. We can’t blame science for making things wrong. In the case of graphene, it’s in every pencil trace. If I know of any danger of a pencil, I guess, then it’s a very sharp pencil and you sit on it.”

Geim seems happy to share his knowledge of graphene with the world. I ask him if he agrees with 
1965 physics laureate Richard Feynman who said of his own work in quantum electrodynamics: “If I could explain it to an average person I wouldn’t be worth the Nobel Prize.” “Ah yes,” says Geim, “but Einstein said the complete opposite: ‘You don’t understand your physics if you can’t explain it to your grandma.’ That’s the usual things with proverbs. They contradict each other.”

 

Tilting at windmills

The only personal touches in Geim’s office are a small printout of a levitating frog, pinned to a corkboard behind his desk, and a large, framed print by Picasso. It’s a black and white sketch featuring Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, in front of a series of windmills (in the novel, Don Quixote fights windmills that he imagines to be giants). I ask Geim what his windmills are, the enemies he will never beat.

He cites politicians, administrators and “the typical academic”. I ask him what constitutes a typical academic. “These days I call them ‘German professors’ without reference to nationality [but] with reference to style,” he says. “It’s people who are put on the rails like a train by their supervisor and they continue doing all the same stuff from their scientific cradles to their scientific coffins. They all go along the same straight rail line – not a British rail line, but a straight rail line like in Siberia. I know plenty of Russians and British who do exactly the same thing without trying to move sideways because it’s dangerous, because it’s not what our instincts tell us… When you move from place to place you learn different things and this [gives you] pieces for your Lego game. The more pieces you have, 
the more complex the structures you can make.”

I managed to survive this Nobel ordeal relatively unscathed. But I know many people who went crazy” — Andre Geim

After years of moving around collecting metaphorical Lego pieces, Geim now seems happy in his adopted country of Britain. “This is probably the only nation I know out of the many where I have lived where people have very similar self deprecation to what I learned during my university years, which was characteristic to the Soviet intelligentsia,” he tells me. “The kind of people who were living within the Soviet system, who played according to the rules but at the same time saw how ridiculous and surreal things sometimes are.”

I ask Geim about the changes the Nobel Prize has made to his life in the last two years. His opinion carries more weight now, he says. And he’s philosophical about the additional pressure he faces. “I managed to survive this Nobel ordeal relatively unscathed,” he tells me. “But I know many people who went crazy, who either decided that they are geniuses or became complete megalomaniacs, and others who started to work so hard to try to prove that they are geniuses they also went crazy. Many Nobel Prize laureates feel the pressure to prove that it was not accidental. It’s quite an ordeal on your psyche. On the other hand, after some time you realise there is very little you can do. You still try your best. You just muddle through life.”

And with that the father of 
gecko tape, flying frogs and a 
£300 billion new industry takes his leave. It is Friday night – and there are experiments to be done…

 

 

 

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