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Scientists slice graphite into atom-thick sheets

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An international team of scientists has made a new material just one atom thick, by extracting a single plane of carbon from a graphite crystal. Known as graphene, the new fabric effectively exists in just two dimensions, and could pave the way for computers built from single molecules.

In the latest edition of Science, published tomorrow, the scientists from Manchester University and Chernogolovka, Russia, explain that the atomic sheet is a fullerene molecule. Fullerenes are a class of carbon molecules discovered in the last twenty years. The first, the famous football-shaped Carbon-60 molecule, was named for architect Buckminster Fuller, because of its resemblance to his geodesic dome structures.

The sheet of atoms is highly flexible, stable and strong and demonstrates remarkable conductivity. Manchester University’s Professor Andre Geim says that qualities like this have been found so far only in nanotubes. "As carbon nanotubes are basically made from rolled-up narrow stripes of graphene, any of the thousands of applications currently considered for nanotubes renowned for their unique properties can also apply to graphene itself," he said.

Although the samples they have studied are mere microns across, the researchers found that the electrons will travel across the material without scattering over submicron distances – ideal for building very fast switching transistors. The researchers have even managed to demonstrate an ambipolar field effect transistor (a transistor commonly used to amplify a weak signal, such as a wireless signal) that works under ambient conditions.

Geim adds that there is some way to go still before the material can legitimately be considered the next big thing. Currently, the samples are tens of microns across, but for real engineering, the scientist says wafers will need to be a few inches in size.

However, Dr. Novoselov, Geim’s counterpart at Chernogolovka, is optimistic: "Only ten years ago carbon nanotubes were less than a micron long. Now, scientists can make nanotubes several centimetres long, and similar progress can reasonably be expected for carbon nanofabric too." ®

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