More realistic applications include ultra-flexible smartphones and solar panels that generate energy from raindrops.
Geim discovered the substance along with research partner Konstantin Novoselov in one of his recreational ‘Friday night experiment sessions’ in 2004. The achievement was recognised when they were awarded the Nobel Prize six years later.
But this super material is just one part of Geim’s fascinating scientific life. Born in soviet-Russia to German parents, he was once denied a place at a leading university over concerns of his ethnicity. After eventually being enabled to study in Europe by the political movement Glasnost, he began carving out a uniquely remarkable career. It’s Geim’s passion for his work that most defines him. The commercialisation of this material which he clearly cares deeply about has been met with a curious, almost timid response. Whilst we explore its revolutionary impact, Andre Geim remains a man waiting for a revolution.
Maybe you could start by explaining why graphene is so unique and exciting?
Well graphene is a one atom thick chicken wire of carbon atoms. There are probably a couple of hundred materials similar to it but graphene is still the most remarkable of these. Graphene has now opened up an entirely new class of materials. To find a new material is very nice and maybe important, but to find a whole class of new materials. . . this happens very rarely in the history of human kind. What to do with these materials we still don’t know. The hope is that it will be as important as bronze or iron. By my nature I’m pretty pessimistic when it comes to making promises but it’s now accepted among the community of people who know these materials well that it is at least as important as plastics or aluminium.
When people ask me about what I expect from this material, as I know you are about to ask me, I start my answer with this story. Once I was on a boat trip, dolphin watching. I have swam with dolphins and seen them since I was very young on the black sea coast, so I know them quite well. But this was an unusual encounter in which the dolphins decided to play with humans. They came next to the boat and allowed us to touch them. And they were wild animals, I’d never heard about something like this happening before. As you can imagine it was a romantic and awesome moment, interacting with these wild animals. (The only other experience I’ve had was with an orangutan in Borneo, but the orangutan only threw branches at me so that was not the best encounter.) But with the dolphins it was amazing. A silence fell and everyone was leaning over the boat to touch the animals. This lasted for a few moments before a small boy shouted, “mum, can we eat them?”
In a sense the situation with graphene is similar to this. We’re only in the first stages, just tinkering with the material, enjoying the beauty of new science. And yet there are already shouts of, “but what is it good for?”
So you’re saying that you’re more interested in the beauty of the pure science than it’s practical applications?
Well that’s 50 percent correct. My job is to find new things before other people do. This Sherlock Holmes game is what I’m trained in. I get a very limited number of clues and with those clues I have to try and make a comprehensive picture of things. Within these Sherlock Holmes games the person who wins is the one who can get the final picture with the minimal number of clues, and of course many people are playing the game. I’m pretty good at it so I enjoy it very much.
On the other hand, being involved in graphene, I am not immune to also thinking about what this material may be good for. I have a list of superlatives; the thinnest, strongest, most electorally conductive, most thermally conductive, most pliable, most flexible etc. When you think about any one of these superlatives you naturally think about what you can do with graphene and how it can improve our lives.
But I’m frustrated with the slow progress, especially of large companies who don’t know how to do innovation. Our socio-economic system forces companies to close their research and developments departments. These days they care only about next quarter’s dividends, they can’t look even a few years ahead. So they are not capable of doing any innovation.
I try to do my bit to help the commercialisation of graphene. I do it very reluctantly but I feel it’s kind of my social obligation not to be as completely anti-social as I’m usually seen as. There are five or six companies which were started by my PHD students and I encourage as much as I can. Sometimes I even have to twist arms. It’s well known that I told one student, “you have a choice. From next month you are either unemployed, or you start your own company with all the help and access to facilities that I can provide.”
What are those five or six companies doing?
One is called Graphene Industies, it was the first graphene company ever and it sells graphene to academic users at exuberant prices. Everyone buys it because this is graphene from Manchester. About ten years ago, one small piece of crystal which is smaller than a cross section of one hair, costed around £2,000. That’s a lot of money for this one atom thick metal, but I like to say that it’s very cheap per carbon atom. Another company is incorporating graphene into fuel cells.
"To find a whole class of new materials. . . this happens very rarely in the history of human kind. What to do with these materials we still don’t know. The hope is that it will be as important as bronze or iron."
There are so many exciting potential applications for graphene being talked about. I’ve been reading about everything from water purification devices, to various types of wearable tech including a glucose monitoring patch for diabetics. Can you tell us anything about these products?
Every two weeks there is some big story about possible uses of graphene. Contact lenses with electronics, water purification, super powerful night vision goggles etc. I’m not saying that it’s all bullshit, but those applications are a bit beyond the current horizons. For one thing we would need to compete with established technologies. These promises rarely transfer into commercial products but the headlines attract attention. Whether the media reports on horrible news or good news, it always needs to be exceptional. And academics also are sadly not immune to this tendency to oversell their stories.
But graphene slowly and steadily diffuses into real world products. It is currently used in tennis racquets and bicycles, I suspect as more of a gimmick than anything else. But what I do know is that if added to rubber tyres it does improve their durability quite dramatically. And there are other really boring applications, in mobile phones and batteries.
If you take any material in history, it usually takes 30, 40, sometimes 100 years before people start finding real applications. No one managed to find applications for aluminium for 40 years. Here was this light, strong material, but what to do with it? Then killer applications came around, most importantly in aircrafts. So we’re still waiting for those killer applications with graphene.
Playfulness seems to be a big part of how you work. You discovered graphene while experimenting with it unofficially after your regular work hours. Why is this experimental and playful approach so important to you?
I just try to avoid boredom. The usual way of doing science is like a railway track in a big country. I’m thinking about a journey I took in Peru, on a very long railway, a straight line that goes for hours. This relates to science because you’re put on these tracks by your supervisor when you’re a PhD student and if you’re successful you progress to the next stage. Then if you’re smart enough and if you work hard enough you become an academic. You continue along the same track, from your scientific cradle to your scientific coffin. This is boring to me and I don’t think academics are paid well enough to be made to suffer from this boredom forever.
So I try to invent things and play games. Often I start with something that an expert in the area may think is trivial. I start with a simple question and in the process of figuring out the answer I end up with something like gecko tape, diamagnetic levitation, or graphene. I ask, what if I pour water into a magnet? Will water change its properties because the magnetic field is stronger than usual? What if we tried to use technology to mimic gecko’s feet? What would be the properties of a very thin piece of graphite? They are all very different questions but what connects them is that none of them were in my area of expertise. Any layman could ask the same questions. So it’s important to do things away from what you know.
Since you bring it up, I have to ask you about diamagnetism and the levitating frog for which you won the Ig Nobel Prize. I hope you haven’t become too bored of talking about it.
Not at all, I’m very proud of it. I loved this experiment and I love the Ig Nobel Prize. I consider it on the same level as the Nobel Prize. Everyone would accept a Nobel Prize, but the Ig Nobel Prize requires some courage to accept. Many of my colleagues have a great sense of humour when the jokes are about someone else, but when the jokes concern themselves their sense of humour disappears.
I stick the picture of the levitating frog on the wall in my lectures and once in a while my students stop looking at their mobile phones because they want to learn what it’s about. So it has a lot of impact. The perception of magnetism has changed with this frog. Diamagnetism is this very weak phenomena that you, and I, and everything around in this room all have, except for a few things which are magnetic. We do not notice diamagnetism but it’s there. And if you can levitate live things, that tells us that the phenomena is not as weak as we perceived it to be.
Winning the Nobel Prize must have been one of the biggest turning points in your life. How did that change things for you?
My life didn’t change much and I followed the same routine. I am as active in my work as I was before, but I feel a little less pressure. I highly recommend winning the Nobel Prize to everyone, seriously, because there are important extras. Money is not an important extra, it all went into my mortgage, but the Nobel ceremony is a once in a lifetime event. It’s an atmosphere you won’t find at any Olympic Games ceremony. And the second important thing is that the Nobel Prize opens many doors. I’m an experience junkie and the Nobel Prize offers many of these incredible experiences, meeting different interesting and weird people.
You’ve said that universities must stop breeding students with the “mentality of civil servants” and start teaching risk-taking. Why do you say that?
This is absolutely true. How on earth can we bridge the gap between academia and the industry when people with the knowledge and skill only want to work for big companies that can’t do innovation? The mentality is very different in America. The US is very successful in tech enterprise for a simple reason; there’s a big group of young people every year who finish their studies and want to be entrepreneurs. They want to become rich. They don’t want to be civil servants.
In every newspaper, every day, you see the difference in the mentality between here and the United States. The most common complaint in the US is that the government interferes too much in their affairs, while in the UK and other European countries the complaint is that the government doesn’t provide, and doesn’t do this or that. It frustrates me.
Now we’re not talking about science but politics. The US is still the only country I know (because China follows the way of Europe) where people rely on themselves rather than some “Big Brother” who will save them and decide everything for them.
Why do you think that this attitude is so deeply ingrained in the American culture?
Well the country is big and the “spirit of the conquerors of the west” is still alive.
You know, I travel quite a lot and I like to spend time in the mountains. I know a huge territory in the US where you can’t even call for rescue. You have to rely on yourself. When I was younger I went on expeditions in the mountains where you self-sustain for three or four weeks and if something happened to you, no one would save you. That’s it. In fact less than two years ago I was in the Grand Canyon and I got a fever of 42 degrees for five days, and then a rattlesnake bit me. No one was around. I had a satellite phone but you don’t call someone for a high fever, that’s not an excuse for calling a helicopter.
"I’m frustrated with the slow progress, especially of large companies who don’t know how to do innovation."
A rattlesnake bite is a good excuse.
Well yes, and that’s what I did in the end. I was rescued by a helicopter. I had hypothermia, after having been too long in cold water. When the doctor was treating my snake bite he listened to my chest and said, “Mate, you’ve got much more serious problems.”
I have had many near death experiences but this was the worst. The previous ones were closer shaves, but at least they didn’t last long.
Are you happy with everything you’re seeing happening here at the newly built National Graphene Institute? The construction I believe cost £61 million, and I know you’ve voiced concerns in the past about money being spent on bricks and mortar rather than science.
That’s a correct citation and my point remains completely valid. It’s important to spend money on bricks and mortar, but don’t call it money spent on science. I’m not involved at all with administration. I’ve succeeded so far in avoiding involvement with the NGI and if I’m involved in graphene companies I do it informally rather than trying to have any official duties with those companies.
Of course I’m not happy. But I see the world and the universe differently from many other people. I’m trying to understand what’s happening with the human race and how progress occurs. For me what is happening now with the NGI is one of those examples where our socio-economic system tries to re-balance itself and find an optimal position.
We have a problem with the relationship between academia and industry, this notorious valley of death for innovation. Tata steel just closed, AstraZeneca are laying out as many people as possible. Governments can’t do anything and the scapegoat becomes universities. Traditionally the role of universities was always to provide education and new knowledge. But now universities are pushed to do something that was never previously within their remit and this is commercialisation and innovation.
As a result many mistakes have been made by all parties, universities and the government, because we are in unchartered waters. Some mistakes are already obvious, at least for some people like myself. If you push universities into commercialising then you have to provide them with money not just for new buildings but to sustain these buildings for the next many years, which was not provided here. You also have to provide the rules of the game. For example, how do you do commercialisation as a public organisation? Can we compete with international competitors? Can a public commercial entity take a risk, or should it be risk avert? Because we are funded by British taxpayers, can we or can’t we buy graphene from foreign countries? All the rules of the game are not yet decided. But we are trying.
You spoke a moment ago about your interest in understanding the progress of the human race. Do you think that science will prevail in providing a happy and sustainable future for us?
Well maybe one day I will write a book about this. The human race in my view of the universe occupies only a very small part of it. The universe has existed for 13 billion years and human civilisation has existed for only about 10,000 years. Before that humans were not very different from other animals, so what we have experienced is a very rapid evolution. For me evolution is a part of the self-organisation process of the universe as it becomes more and more complicated and connected. Essentially the human race is always becoming part of a more complicated system which you may call Gaia, the earth itself, or you can call it something else. But humans are only a part of this. I look always at wars and history as a continual process of making the universe more complex.
We continue to a better state. I’m very positive of that. When someone tells me that robots will take over, or something like that, to me it’s a completely rubbish argument. There is no point for the system for robots to replace humans.
We’ll see how it goes. But it would take another two hours to persuade you about the logic of this self-organisational theory of the universe. We would have to start from the Big Bang and finish in a thousand years or more from now.
Photos of Andre Geim: © James King-Holmes/SciTech Image’
Last photo: Andrei Geim receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden
It reminds me of my childhood. Everyone at that time was listening to The Beatles but my parents had a collection of vinyl and I was constantly listening to it. I’m still completely mesmerised by this tobacco infested voice of Edith Piaf.
An Italian Wine made from slightly old grapes. Very intense.
I still like to go on expeditions, but I don’t go as hard as I used to. I love the mountains but my knees don’t.