The godfather of graphene

When Andre Geim discovered graphene, he went from winning the Ig Nobel prize to the Nobel. Giles Whittell meets the quirky Russian physicist who may be the new James Watt

giles whittell | September/October 2014

A year before the fall of the Soviet Union, in December 1990, a young Russian physicist arrived at Nottingham station with very little money and very poor English. He had a burly look, a wide grin and “an interesting but not world-shaking piece of work” to his name on thin-film superconductors. This was the assessment of Peter Main, a professor at the University of Nottingham who met him at the station. Freed from the Soviet Union by glasnost, Main’s visitor was determined to build a career in Europe and determined to make an impression. He was on a six-month fellowship, and for most of those six months he worked hundred-hour weeks. He tried to make his fellow researchers laugh, though not with much success. Main remembers that he caused an important physics-department computer to crash, and that “after about two weeks I was the only person left who was prepared to work with him”.

Looking back, Professor Sir Andre Geim wondered if it was his accent that annoyed his new colleagues. It is still strong, with the guttural “r” that in Russia often betrays ethnic German roots, but Main believes what rubbed people up the wrong way was simpler and deeper—Geim’s urgent, conspicuous need to prove himself. “He had some trouble fitting in in a social way,” Main says, “which is interesting because later on he became the social centre of life in his department.”

The department where Geim has since come to roost, at the University of Manchester, specialises in a field of science that was not fashionable even ten years ago but is now a magnet for many of the best brains on the planet. The Condensed Matter Physics Group occupies a couple of floors of a functional block two miles east of Old Trafford. There Geim’s team study the extraordinary properties of two-dimensional materials that no one knew existed until he revealed them to the world.

His humour goes over better along the CMPG’s corridors than it did in Nottingham. Or at least he takes great pleasure in, say, throwing together a pair of Indian and Pakistani post-docs and calling them both “Kashmirians”. He gets away with it because it’s funny, and perhaps because of the status he has acquired in his adoptive country. Four years ago he became an unusually young winner of the Nobel physics prize. (He was 52, but youth is relative in the intellectual stratosphere. He reckons he’s one of 30 living Nobel winners not to have dementia.) He has since been adopted as a hero of Russian science by members of President Putin’s ruling elite and as the incarnation of Britain’s 21st-century knowledge economy by a grateful coalition government. Informally, he has been ele­vated to the role of public intellectual, which is more popular in France than Britain and probably more perilous in Britain than France. Not that he minds the risk. “Political correctness is not one of my vices,” he growls. “I’m accepting that my role in society is to be a disturbance in the smooth flow.”

In the biographies that Geim’s admirers hope to read about him he will be more than a mere scientist. He will be the founder of a new economy. Like James Watt 230 years ago, he will be the man behind the breakthrough that changed everything. Thanks to Geim, this vision holds, the economy will be comprehensively rebuilt over the next several decades to incorporate the miraculous strength, lightness, flexibility and electrical conductivity of graphene, the one-atom-thick carbon sheeting that he and a quick-thinking student were the first to get between their tweezers and under a microscope.

Graphene, for now, is Geim’s life’s work. It is what he is known for. It is the reason for a sleek new £61m research centre being built near his office, for hundreds of research groups and thousands of patents and patent applications. Apple is experimenting with graphene for heat-sinks for its batteries, Saab for de-icing, Lockheed for desalination. Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic have it in their Head tennis racquets. Geim himself has proposed using large volumes of graphene flakes to stop radioactive coolant seeping from the doomed Fukushima reactors. The incentives for graphene commercialisation are limitless in the strict sense that there is no limit to what it might be worth, although £30 billion a year is one guess. The pressure on British scientists to seize the opportunity has been intense, and Geim has not been immune.

When I first met him two years ago he said the £50m the British government had pledged for graphene research was “not even competitive” with sums earmarked in Singapore and South Korea. Since then some of the fever has abated. Geim is less worried about brute investment and more optimistic about the quality of Britain’s graphene start-ups. For his own part he is trying to move on. He knows graphene is the great applied-science project of the age but does not want it to define him. He knows the National Graphene Institute should be a boon to Manchester, but is leaving others to run it. He is prowling the frontiers of two-dimensional crystallography to see where they might lead to whole new fields of discovery. He is scanning the molecular horizon for ways to achieve room-temperature superconductivity, for example (“would be nice” but for now looks “overly optimistic”), and there are those who have begun to murmur that if he can only find more time to indulge his maverick streak, he could even put his first Nobel behind him by winning a second.

Two months after Geim arrived in Nottingham, he was joined by his wife. It was February, and dank. Irina Grigorieva remembers the gloomy weather and their precarious circumstances—she, too, was a condensed-matter physicist, but had no job. Yet there were reasons to be cheerful. Unlike their Brazilian housemate, they both had decent hats. Unlike the Russian winter, the English one relented early, pushing up crocuses and inspiring Grigorieva to try her luck. She wrote to Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Imperial offering to host seminars in aspects of solid-state physics that she had covered in her PhD. To her amazement, she received replies and invitations.

Nowadays Irina is a full professor at Manchester, with her own niche in graphene research and an office four doors down the corridor from Andre’s. She usually leaves home earlier than he does to take their daughter to school, and her husband uses the time to go through e-mails and a global database of peer-reviewed physics papers before heading to the university. When he gets there he runs his department like an NFL quarterback whose natural gifts allow him to keep playing long after lesser athletes have been forced to take up coaching.

“All the ideas come from Andre,” Grigorieva says. “I’ve been working with him for a long time now but I’m still amazed by the way his mind works. A huge percentage of his ideas lead to real progress, which is highly unusual.” He is closely involved in about four projects at a time, she says, and more loosely engaged in about ten more. He is always working on a paper of his own and is listed as an author on almost all the papers produced by the group.

There is no time in this game for basic drills, which is to say, for undergraduate teaching. Towards the end of a memorable turn on “Desert Island Discs” earlier this year Geim said, quite casually, that he didn’t much like students: “They come absolutely ignorant and they are not grown up yet as interesting people.” His apparent disdain for the next generation of scientists made the newspapers, where it drowned out what he said next about the few who choose serious research. “Sometimes over two or three years of their PhD they grow exponentially fast, pick up experiences and then they become real persons,” he said. “And after that we become, not like a professor and a student, we become like colleagues.”

He was exaggerating, Grigorieva says, but not much. “As long as you do things and develop, he’ll work with you [but] it is a little bit sink or swim. If he suggests something and people keep coming back and saying it’s too difficult he’ll move somewhere else.” She pauses as if wondering if she has gone too far, and decides she hasn’t. “Teaching undergraduates is not really his thing. Nobel prizewinners don’t teach, basically.”

The most famous Geim student to have made the leap to colleague—his most formidable linebacker, now a fellow Nobel laureate and knight of the realm—is Konstantin 
“Kostya” Novoselov. Asked about his notional boss’s management style, Novoselov recoils. “I would hate to use the words ‘management style’ and I’m quite sure Andre would hate it too,” he says. “I learned my way in science and developed my style and taste from him, and generally the style of the group is no management structure, no line management.” Asked about which of them really deserves the credit for isolating graphene, he seems to suppress a sigh of frustration: “It doesn’t matter who. The beauty and fun of working with Andre is that he comes up with these crazy ideas, like ‘why don’t we make a transistor out of graphite?’ That was the key moment.”

The story of the discovery of graphene has 
entered physics lore on the same plane as Newton’s apple and Richard Feynman’s dipping of an O-ring into a glass of iced-water to show what happened to the Challenger space shuttle. The most authoritative version so far is Geim’s own, delivered in his 2010 Nobel lecture, and it is striking for two reasons: you don’t need a minute’s formal physics education to see its brilliance, and it was never part of anyone’s grand plan. It was the child of the basic necessity of finding something for someone to do.

The year was 2002. Geim had taken on a new Chinese doctoral student who needed a project to keep the physics part of his mind busy while he learned English. The quest for very thin, very conductive substances had been an obsession of materials scientists since the dawn of computing, but with notable exceptions it had largely been confined to metals. Geim did not invent the term graphene—it had been around as a concept since the 1980s—but it had not been isolated or investigated and he was intrigued by the possibilities of connecting an ultra-thin layer of graphite to a pair of electrodes. So he suggested to his student, Da Jiang, that he see what could be obtained by polishing. Da duly polished away at a tablet of pyrolitic graphite, leaving a speck of little use to anyone.

Geim kept talking about thin graphite. Taking the hint, a researcher from Ukraine, Oleg Shklyarevskii, went rummaging in a bin in the lab where Da had been working. The lab is through the first door on the left as you enter Geim’s lair. It is unremarkable in terms of gadgetry but in a sense is where graphene began, because in the bin Shklyarevskii found sticky bundles of discarded tape that others in the group had been 
using as a standard method of cleaning other lumps of graphite, as you might use tape to take dog hairs off an overcoat. On the tape were flakes of graphite thin enough to be translucent. Geim looked at some under a microscope and knew at once that they were far thinner than Da’s speck. The flakes were promising, but there was legwork to be done to know how promising. The quarterback looked around for someone to pass to. Later he wrote in his Nobel lecture: “Oleg did not volunteer to take on yet another project, but Kostya did.”

Novoselov found he only had to repeat the tape trick a few times on the same sample to see, under sufficient magnification, a neat hexagonal lattice of pure carbon, one atom thick. That a two-dimensional substance could be stable at room temperature was the first surprise. That it was not only highly conductive but “tunable”—meaning the electron flow across it could be controlled—was the big one; the eureka moment; the point at which Geim began diverting resources to find better ways of producing graphene and testing them to destruction.

It took a year. Similar work was going on at Columbia University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, but with hindsight there is little doubt that the Manchester team was ahead at least by months. The first Novoselov-Geim paper on the “Electric Field Effect in Atomically Thin Carbon Films” was published in Science in October 2004. It was less than three pages long, but was immediately seized on by others in the graphene race, whose first aim was to test its findings. They stood up. The hype was justified. Gram for gram, graphene really was 100 times stronger than steel and 100 times more conductive than copper. By 2010 the paper had been cited more than 3,000 times in other research, but long before that it was clear that the Nobel committee would have to pay attention.

Geim was at home when the call came through at around 10am on October 5th 2010. He was not optimistic about winning that year, having convinced himself that it was the turn of astrophysics or cosmology. But Grigorieva already knew because the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had phoned her at work to ask for his number. When she hung up with Stockholm she waited a few minutes. “Then of course I tried to call him, but it was already too late.” The home phone was jammed for the next two hours. “The next time I saw him was when he came to work,” she says. “He put on a suit and managed to get here at about 12, and there was this line of people in the corridor applauding, and all the phones in every 
office were ringing non-stop. I met him on the stairs. We were a little dazed.” On that occasion he didn’t have a joke to hand. “I think we just hugged, and that was it.”

Like Grigorieva, Novoselov was at the office when he heard. He was already on another call with a fellow 
researcher, and so, he says, “I kept the call from Sweden very, very short.” He then went back to the previous call, not letting on that he had just won the Nobel prize. “I’m still proud of that. The guys in Sweden said, ‘you’ve got about 40 minutes of normal life left, so I used the time to finish what I was doing. I hope I kept my proper composure.”

I ask why he didn’t let himself scream and shout and the linebacker replies: “Because you shouldn’t. We are scientists, and your prime motivation should be interest and progress in science. If there is a paper to finish you need to finish it. If there are formulas to be written they must be written. It would be an oxymoron to get a phone call from Sweden and stop doing science at that moment. It would be completely wrong.”

Novoselov is a world-class scientist but also the perfect straight man to Geim’s showman; a hand-picked foil for the condensed-matter conjurer who takes such pleasure in mixing combustible ethnicities in his research team. Geim is a quarterback but also a conductor—the conductor of an 
orchestra of uppity soloists dragged together from across the globe for the enlightenment of humankind. If anything, his management style is management by melting pot. “When you have many nationalities, and especially when people get a bit righteous about their governments, it gives great joy to break prejudices and biases against each other,” he says. “Whether it’s Ukrainians and Russians, Israelis and Iranians, Pakistanis and Indians, it’s really OK. For two or three months there is a tension, and out of respect for each other people try to put a smile on their faces. Then after six months all my racist jokes and politically incorrect jokes are actually taken as jokes.” Which makes him, he muses, a “great ambassador for peace”.

As we speak, Ukraine is sliding towards war, with itself and possibly with Russia. It is ten years since Geim’s eureka moment and four since the call from Stockholm that marked his emergence as a public figure. The first TV crew on the scene in Manchester that day was from a Russian network. As its 
report was beamed back to the motherland, distant Geim relatives, previously unknown to him, began stepping forward from Ukraine to Siberia. On the website of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, where he was a star student in the 1970s, scanned copies of his old exam papers started to appear complete with the signatures of the great Soviet scientists who had marked them. In the years that followed, he would get to know members of what he calls Russia’s “ruling 20”, and to respect them. He doesn’t name these people, routinely caricatured as stone-faced kleptocrats, but he does say they are 
“actually hard-working, nice guys trying to do their best”.

Geim is not above teasing journalists for the fun of it, but on Russia and Ukraine he doesn’t seem to be joking. He has family in Kharkiv who happen to be supporters of the new government in Kiev, and he claims not to be taking sides. So when I ask which side in this mess is the more guilty of propagandising, Russia or the West, he gives what he considers an objective answer. “I think the Western side is. Everything we are doing in the West in terms of foreign policy is very short-sighted…and in the case of Ukraine you don’t even need to be an oracle. The economy is so weak and so much based on trade with Russia that if this relationship is broken you can keep the country together only on the basis of hatred towards your neighbour, and this is what the Ukrainian government is doing. How long will it last? Within five years the population will be fed up and there will be another revolution. It’s all so predictable, and everyone will suffer.”

As for his adoptive kin, he believes the British “have to be more understanding towards Russia”. It is wrong, he says, “to project your mentality onto the mentality of a completely different nation” whose problems are on a completely different scale. He doesn’t know Vladimir Putin personally, but he supports Putin’s surgical taming of the oligarchs, supports his drive to claw back state control of much of the economy, and doesn’t care who knows it. You want soundbites? He does soundbites. Britain is a “democratic mediocracy”, as in mediocre. Russia is a “tsarist idiocracy”, or at least it is until about halfway through our conversation, by which time his coffee intake, from a new espresso machine installed on his window sill, has risen to four lattes and counting. By then at least parts of the Russian system have become a “tsarist meritocracy”. This much he knows: “Homo sapiens is not a very wise animal, contrary to the Latin name.”

For someone so warm in person and so well-loved by his colleagues, Geim does a remarkable line in scorn for his own species. A month after learning of his Nobel prize he visited Israel, met President Shimon Peres and sat for an 
interview with the Jerusalem Post. His mother’s grandmother was Jewish and the Post was keen to get to the bottom of his own sense of identity. He answered on his own terms: “I suffered from anti-Semitism in Russia because my name sounds Jewish, so I identify with you. Nonetheless, I don’t divide the world by religions or countries, but by stupid people and slightly less stupid people, and I hope that I am numbered among the second group.”

Geim says he was about eight when he first realised he was less stupid than his peers. At about 14 his default position at the top of the class started showing up in tests and he won a regional chemistry Olympiad by memorising an entire chemistry dictionary. At 16 he left school and began the process of applying to the top science universities in the Soviet Union.

He was guided to this point not by his parents, who were running a large factory in the North Caucasus, but by a grandmother in Sochi whom he has called “the best friend I would ever have”. Her husband died young of scurvy acquired—Geim says—from too much pine-needle tea drunk while a political prisoner in the far north. His own father, too, was 
interned in Siberia because of his German surname, but Geim knew none of this until the Soviet Union was crumbling. His family had kept it from him fearing that if he knew the truth and blurted it out it might torpedo his career.

Even without this knowledge he had an unsettling brush with Soviet ethnic sorting when applying to a Moscow science institute that supplied nuclear physicists to the military-industrial complex. Jews and ethnic Germans were not admitted in case they emigrated with sensitive secrets. Geim says he was failed along with every other candidate in his exam room, all of whom had foreign-sounding names. By a nice irony he had exposure to nuclear weapons nonetheless. The institute he did attend came with light-touch national-service duties consisting of instruction in the workings of intercontinental ballistic missiles. “I learned how to send ICBMs in the direction of the US or China or London,” he says. He visited a silo outside Pskov and peered down at communism’s front-line instrument of armageddon, though on a look-but-don’t-touch basis: “I never had any practice. I would be useless at pressing the big red button.”

Immersed in these sorts of memories, does Geim at some level feel nostalgic for the Soviet Union? He denies it. By the end, the system’s bankruptcy extended to the highest reaches of its research establishment. There was no equipment, no money and no future. Even so, he enjoys telling the ICBM story for the way it sets him apart. He enjoys recalling, for its sheer strangeness, a summer spent far beyond the Arctic Circle at the mouth of the Yenisei, working with friends on a building site from 10pm to 8am because such things are possible in the land of the midnight sun (“and maybe because the mosquitoes were less aggressive”). And he enjoys telling Westerners that the Soviet era wasn’t one long timeline of bad. Stalin was Stalin, to be sure, but Brezhnev, especially late Brezhnev, could be very tolerable. Commonly told Brezhnev jokes were far ruder than “Spitting Image”, and you could try them on anyone as long as you didn’t do it with a loud-hailer in Red Square.

“The mentality of all the Moscow intelligentsia was the same as [the dissident Andrei] Sakharov,” he says. “They just didn’t make it public.” Such was his experience, at any rate, as a young recruit to the intelligentsia, ensconced in an elite science city outside Moscow during the Soviet Götterdämmerung. This was a place of nine institutes, two schools and two shops, called Chernogolovka. Irina Grigorievna 
remembers it well: she met Geim there, and married him there in 1988, and still talks about it as if she has just fallen in love. “We would walk together from where we lived to the labs because there was no public transport,” she says. “It was a 25-minute walk and I laughed all the way. His stories weren’t always new, but they were always funny.” In the summers they would climb together in Kyrgyzstan’s magnificent Tien Shan mountains. “On one trip he was our group leader and he introduced democracy,” she says. “We’d vote which way to go, and it wouldn’t be the right way, but we’d go anyway.”

The office of the new James Watt is big enough for a small conference table as well as a desk, and wide enough for him to pace backwards and forwards without looking ridiculous. In three hours, he never sits. He almost never lets his coffee cup run dry and he leaps calmly from graphene to mountaineering to the merits of Singaporean governance (he’s a fan), whether prompted by a question or a firing synapse of his own. It’s how his mind works. There are no boundaries; just ideas.

“Somehow I measure my life and longevity not in years but in the number of accumulated experiences,” he says. Many of these experiences are mountains he has climbed. One is finding a use for an extremely powerful magnet at a university in Holland in the late 1990s. He levitated a frog, and even though this demonstrated nothing new about magnetism, it attracted grants, attention and job offers. It marked him out as a prankster and earned him an Ig Nobel prize from Harvard. Against the advice of more self-important scientists he showed up to collect the prize and, the organisers remember, “was constantly running around telling dirty jokes”. He was especially fond of showing the kind of imagery to be obtained from the reflection of two fingers in a spoon.

He is proud to be worldly in the sense of having seen the real world, and he is contemptuous of the virtual world of social media. He rejects the term “tweeting” in favour of “twittering” on the basis that it sounds sillier, and he sees nothing good in the trend for twenty-something Californian IT billionaires to think they can solve serious problems with smartphone apps. Of course, graphene may yet make twittering even easier by allowing us to fold up our social-media 
interfaces on a piece of paper or wear them on a rumpled sleeve. In fact, where Geim used to show visitors graphene in tiny specks mounted on silicon wafers he now has a prototype floppy graphene-coated smartphone screen. But it doesn’t work very well, and he’s not remotely bothered. So far almost all the applied graphene research under way in Manchester and elsewhere is on “substitution applications” that may tweak the world but won’t transform it. The killer app is yet to come.

When it does, which may not be for decades, it will probably involve graphene in combination with other two-dimensional materials that Geim and Novoselov are working on. Hexagonal boron nitride, for example. In various 3D forms, HBN has long been used as a resilient lubricant, stable in a vacuum and across a wide temperature range. In 2D form, sandwiched between layers of graphene, it is opening up brave new vistas, from data storage to nano-transistors that could make today’s fastest, smallest microprocessors look slow and big.

Graphene-HBN heterostructures are amazingly tunable, says Novoselov. They could make a commercial reality of quantum computing, in which information is stored not in binary bytes but myriad “qubits”, giving exponential increases in processing power and computers millions of times more powerful than, say, Deep Blue. From there it’s a short step to artificial intelligence that is genuinely intelligent. Before that point is reached the likelihood is that graphene will already be embedded in our built environment, in super-light airframes, in skis, bicycles, helmets for when we fall off them, cranial 
implants for when the helmets fail and molecular-scale delivery systems for smart cancer drugs. Steel and plastic changed the world. It will be astonishing if graphene doesn’t do so too. 

The day is slipping by. Geim has shoulders to peer over, running backs to guide towards the end zone. In the next few months he’ll climb Mount Etna and Yushan, the highest mountain in Taiwan. In January, he’ll attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, as a “court jester” (entertaining the plutocrats, he says, is a “palaeo-anthropological” experience) but also as a skier. Skiing is a relatively new form of self-expression for him. He took it up after his daughter, who is now 13, and he competes with her intensively. I ask his wife and soulmate if he’s any good. “He’s very brave and he’s becoming a little more elegant,” she says. “For now all I can say is he skis like he drives a car and does his science. At full speed.”

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