City of graphene hosts forum full of questions

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Sandy Schaffer

Manchester, England, is not the birthplace of graphene — the atom-thin, honeycomb-like layer of carbon known for its wondrous properties and seemingly limitless applications. But the city is the material’s main booster and, according to the University of Manchester, the official Home of Graphene. That’s because it was there that Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov figured out that you could isolate the elusive material from graphite (the “lead” in pencils) with repeated dabs of sticky tape.

The two-dimensional material also proved to be a peerless electrical conductor and superstrong, earning the two Manchester scientists the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. So when the city played host to the EuroScience Open Forum conference late last month, it made sense that Geim, graphene and the material’s many evolving applications took center stage. At the local science museum’s new exhibit about graphene, I learned that Geim is the only Nobelist who has also been honored with an Ig Nobel (which has fun celebrating seemingly useless research in science). He contends many are more familiar with his Ig Nobel–winning device to levitate a tiny frog than with his work on graphene.

Notably, graphene comes up in both of the feature stories in this issue, adding some heft, perhaps, to Mancunian claims. In Thomas Sumner’s cover story “Quenching society’s thirst,” about the growing interest in desalination to meet the globe’s escalating need for freshwater, graphene oxide has a potentially starring role. New membranes made from this material may help increase the efficiency of separating salt from water. Cost and efficiency, Sumner reports, remain the biggest obstacles to the widespread use of desalination.

Graphene can serve as analogy and inspiration in physicists’ efforts to create solid metallic hydrogen, another theorized wonder material, which Emily Conover describes in “Chasing a devious metal.” “It’s a high-stakes, high-passion pursuit that sparks dreams of a coveted new material that could unlock enormous technological advances in electronics,” Conover writes. Solid hydrogen, which has been made, takes on a graphenelike structure when squeezed to high pressures. Solid metal hydrogen might be a superconductor at room temperature, an exciting prospect. Despite significant progress, so far no one has been able to create it.

Local celebrity or not, graphene did share the spotlight with other science superstars at the EuroScience meeting. The gene-editing tool CRISPR got lots of attention. In a review of the historic detection of gravitational waves, Sheila Rowan of the University of Glasgow offered a bevy of questions that gravitational astronomy might be able to answer in the coming years: Where and when do black holes form? What does that tell you about the large-scale formation of galaxies? Is general relativity still valid when gravity is very strong (such as near supermassive black holes)? A session on the human microbiome generated even more questions, as scientists described efforts to use microbial species as telltale signs of diseases such as cancer. And a debate about how to prevent food allergies left most agreeing that more data are needed. As answers come in on all of these and many more fascinating topics, you can be sure that Science News will be there to report on them.


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