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Vol 458|26 March 2009

Graphene gets ready
for the big time
Physicists are talking about how to make practical
use of a former laboratory curiosity.
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA has properties that make it alluring for certain
Physicists are in the grips of graphene applications. Electrical charge can fly through
madness. At last week’s American Physical the sheets at high velocities, up to four times
Society meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, those in silicon. Large thin layers of graph-
they packed conference rooms to hear about ene would be both flexible and transparent.
the atom-thick sheets of honeycombed car- Graphene ribbons might act as transistors,
bon. Talks on graphene transistors, chemical even though bulk graphene does not. And
sensors, electrodes, scales and frequency gen- because graphene is so thin, even the slight-
erators could all be heard, with participants est brush from neighbouring atoms can alter
from industry, notably IBM, in many of the its mechanical and electrical properties. “It
sessions. has been a fascinating material,” says Marcus
The ultra-thin carbon sheets have turned Freitag of IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center
the normally staid community into “a herd in Yorktown Heights, New York.
of rhinos”, says Andre Geim, a physicist at the
University of Manchester, UK. And, he adds, Silicon transplant?
“this year, I feel more like applications are what’s To turn graphene applications into reality,
driving the field.” the material must first be synthesized in large
Not everyone is sanguine about graphene’s quantities. Until now, it has often been grown
chances for going commercial. Graphene has on substrates of silicon carbide, a costly mate-
several problems, notably a lack of an obvi- rial that is available in only limited quantities
ous ‘band gap’, a break in electron energy from suppliers. But at last week’s meeting, sev-
levels that would allow it to be easily used as eral new techniques were on display, includ-
a transistor, says Kenneth Shepard, an elec- ing a way to grow graphene through chemical
trical engineer at Columbia University in vapour deposition, a process widely used in
New York. “There are a lot of problems with the electronics industry. In one session, Byung
this stuff,” he warns, fearing that starry-eyed Hee Hong of Sungkyunkwan University in
researchers may overhype this South Korea reported using the Sheet happens: graphene could have potential
latest material. “There have been technique to grow films up to uses in solar cells or flexible displays.
But others argue that graphene great advances in 10 centimetres in diameter — a
is much more promising than its figure he soon hopes to double. frequencies allow for more bandwidth, and

predecessor, carbon nanotubes. making large-scale “There have been great advances that means graphene could pave the way for
Nanotubes, essentially rolls of graphene.” in making large-scale graphene,” broadband satellite communication. In early
graphene, have been difficult to Freitag says. experiments on display at the conference, Han
control and integrate into existing electronics, While some researchers work on making Wang, one of Palacios’s graduate students, pre-
says Tomás Palacios, an electrical engineer at more graphene, others hunt for ways to use it. sented data up to one megahertz (106 Hz), but
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in The most immediate application would be as Palacios is bullish: “We should be able to have
Cambridge. Graphene’s uniformity and flat- a simple electrode. Although transparent elec- competitive devices just a few months from
ness make it easier to combine with current trodes using materials such as indium tin oxide now,” he says.
silicon technology, and many researchers who are already commercially available, graphene’s Whether graphene can replace silicon as the
once worked on nanotubes are now focusing flexibility would give it an edge in solar cells basic unit of the electronics industry is another
instead on graphene. The shift was evident at and displays, says Philip Kim, a physicist at question; its lack of a band gap is a formidable
this year’s meeting: there were 16 sessions on Columbia University. problem. The most obvious solution is to cut
nanotubes, whereas graphene had 28. Graphene also shows promise for broad- the material into ribbons, which have discrete
Work on graphene — discovered by Geim band communications, in part because elec- energy levels. But, as several groups showed in
and his colleagues almost 5 years ago (K. S. trical charge can move so quickly through it. Pittsburgh, cutting the sheets creates a jagged
Novoselov et al. Science 306, 666–669; 2004) Graphene transmitters and receivers should be edge of dangling chemical bonds that can pick
— heated up quickly as researchers realized able to operate at frequencies on a scale of hun- up unwanted contaminants. Xinran Wang of
that the material’s two-dimensionality caused dreds of gigahertz (109 Hz) or even terahertz Stanford University in California reported
it to show unusual quantum behaviours (see (1012 Hz), far better than silicon, which oper- some success in using ammonia and other
Nature 438, 201–204; 2005). But graphene also ates at several gigahertz, says Palacios. Higher compounds to dope the edges of the graphene
© 2009 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved
NATURE|Vol 458|26 March 2009 NEWS


Most detailed atlas of
disease risk unveiled.

UK funding ban sparks protests

British scientists are campaigning against wave of scientists affected in April, says
a plan to bar hundreds of unsuccessful David Delpy, EPSRC chief executive. “We
grant applicants from making funding are a little uncomfortable with something
bids in the following year. that is applied retrospectively,” he says.
The rule, announced by the “But we can’t wait another two years to
government’s Engineering and Physical implement it, with success rates falling as
Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) on they are.” Although that rate has hovered
12 March, aims to reduce the pressure on around 30% since 2004, it has dropped to
an overloaded system that currently peer just 24% in the past year.
reviews all grant applications. Low success rates make applicants more
But by 24 March, more than 1,200 cautious about spending time preparing
protesters had signed an online petition ambitious proposals, says Delpy, and a flood
( demanding of safer proposals could crowd out higher-
that the policy be repealed. “The feeling risk but potentially ground-breaking ideas.
in the community is that it is draconian Chemists are most likely to be affected
and deeply unfair,” says Philip Moriarty, a by the policy, says David Reid, head of
physicist at the University of Nottingham, marketing and communications for the
UK. He and other scientists contacted by EPSRC, because they tend to submit larger
Nature say they will refuse to review their numbers of smaller, short-term proposals
colleagues’ work under such a system. compared with other subject areas. Some
Science-funding experts think that the funding areas with a focus on chemistry
strategy is unique among UK, US and have seen success rates fall as low as 15%.
European funding bodies. “We could “It is the chemists who are mostly
not do it in the United States. It would be complaining, and it is the chemists who
very contentious,” says Antonio Scarpa, produce most of the applications that fail,”
director of the Center for Scientific says Wakeham.
Review at the National Institutes of Tom Welton, head of chemistry at
Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Frank Imperial College London, echoed the
Wissing, life-sciences programme director feeling of many chemists contacted
at Germany’s science funding agency, by Nature, calling the move a “knee-
the DFG, adds that its committees have jerk bureaucratic response”. “We are
never discussed a ban on appalled by the lack of
unsuccessful applicants. “It is the chemists who consultation,” adds Joe
The EPSRC says that are mostly complaining, Sweeney, an organic
ribbons, allowing them to carry charge more scientists will not be chemist at the University
easily. Even then, the scattering of electrons allowed to apply for
and it is the chemists of Reading, UK.
from the ribbon’s ragged edges greatly reduces research funding for who produce most of the Reid concedes that the
its performance. Based on these kinds of 12 months if, in the past applications that fail.” EPSRC did not consult
findings, Shepard believes that making these 2 years, they have had widely on the specifics
devices work will be extremely difficult. three or more proposals ranked in the of the policy. But he argues that a 2007
“Nothing’s going to supplant silicon, not in bottom half of a funding prioritization consultation by Research Councils UK, an
my lifetime,” he says. list, and also have less than 25% of all their umbrella group for the country’s research
Ultimately, it may be too early to tell just proposals funded in that time. funding councils, had found that some
what graphene will — or won’t — be able to The funding council says it expects academics supported the idea of targeted
do. As groups presented models and raw data 200–250 researchers will be excluded, disincentives to improve success rates.
from their early graphene gadgets, it became accounting for 5% of applicants but 10% of Delpy says that other options considered
clear that many are still grappling with the the total number of applications submitted by the council, but rejected, included
latest addition to the pantheon of carbon to the council. Those researchers are charging for submissions; applying
materials. At the end of one talk, Andrea “producing a disproportionate load on the institutional quotas; or penalizing
Carlo Ferrari of the University of Cambridge, peer-review system”, says Bill Wakeham, universities by making doctoral training
UK, flashed a few slides onto the screen. vice-chancellor at the University of grants proportional to their success rates.
Apparently, oxidizing graphene causes it Southampton, UK, and a member of the Along with the exclusion policy, which
to glow under infrared laser light, Ferrari EPSRC council. Excluded scientists will will be reviewed in a year’s time, the EPSRC
told the crowd. The data are fresh, and the have to undergo a mentoring programme will also refuse uninvited resubmissions
implications still unclear. “Will this lead to help improve their success rates before of failed proposals, bringing it in line with
somewhere?” Ferrari said afterwards with a being allowed to submit grants again. other UK research councils. ■
shrug, “We don’t know.” ■ The exclusions will begin from 1 June, Richard Van Noorden
Geoff Brumfiel and the EPSRC will be contacting the first See Editorial, page 385.

© 2009 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved