Graphene – Unexpected Science in a Pencil Line

Optional Abstract: 

Our hands-on activity aims to convey that cutting-edge science is often hidden in plain sight, and accessible to people of all age groups and backgrounds. This is exemplified nowhere better than with Graphene, the world’s first two dimensional material, which was considered not to exist in a stable form. Graphene was first isolated only in 2004 by Manchester scientists Geim and Novoselov who were awarded the Nobel Prize for their efforts. Our activity allows just about anyone to make your own graphene with nothing more than a piece of graphite (pencil lead) and sticky tape like ‘Scotch’ tape. Indeed, this is identical to the way graphene was first isolated and now produced in high-tech clean room laboratories around the world. With this activity, we endeavour to allow people of all walks of life to experience the latest advances in science, and we reward their efforts with a chocolate Nobel medal!

Background

Graphene is currently a favourite material of physicists, chemists and material scientists all over the world, and the pioneers of this field, Prof. Geim and Prof. Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. The method of making graphene, known as ‘micromechanical cleavage of graphite’ and the use of optical interference contrast to see graphene on top of silicon - silicon dioxide substrate were pioneered in 2004 at Manchester, and continues to be the primary method of making and identifying graphene in laboratories around the world. (Making graphene video http://is.gd/PCHRpG)

Description of Core Activity

In this project, we provide each participant with a piece of sticky tap like Scotch-tape, and a small flake of graphite, which is the constituent of pencil lead. The participant will place the graphite on the tape, fold the tape over, peal it back, and repeat this process, making the graphite thinner and thinner. After about 10 to 20 peelings, the tape is placed under an optical microscope and the participant is shown how to locate the graphene. They are then rewarded with an ‘I MADE GRAPHENE’ badge, as well as a chocolate Nobel Prize medal. They are also given a flyer with information about graphene, and can visit our graphene website (www.graphene.manchester.ac.uk/)

Clarity of Purpose

This project allows us to bring state-of-the art science, normally undertaken under controlled clean-room conditions, out into the world, and give everyone a chance to experience the wonders of nanotechnology with their own hands and eyes.

The core activity of this project, making graphene by the ‘Scotch-tape method’ and identifying it under a microscope, is designed to be suitable for all age groups (kids, teenagers and adults) as well as all backgrounds (scientific and non-scientific). The method is simple enough even for young children (8+ years) to carry out. As the graphite is pealed on the tape, a small fleck can multiply to cover the entire tape with a shiny layer, which fascinates the youngest to the oldest participant alike. While the participant prepares the graphene on the tape and views it in the microscope, we engage them in discussions of the aspects of graphene most relevant to them. Adults with a scientific background express curiosity about the phenomenal properties of graphene, while non-scientists are more interested in the economic and social aspects. Teenagers are more concerned about exciting possibilities such as bendable phone and electronic paper which are possible with graphene.

In order to further cater to the needs of different target audiences, we have developed supporting activities. These include graphene-based games for iPhone, iPad and Android, and a ‘virtual transmission electron microscope’ app for iPad and Android tablets, where anyone can see how graphene looks under an electron microscope. For download links, see http://is.gd/3cy1bt.

Impact

The activity has been presented at the 2011 Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London (http://is.gd/bHYaFA ) where over 6 days it attracted about 14,000 visitors, and generated highly positive feedback. The activity was covered by a number of news outlets, including BBC1 (http://youtu.be/qwLBwOJBUBQ), BBC Radio 4, Engadget (http://is.gd/MqqcX7) and Physics World. Perhaps the best measure of the success and impact of our activity is that it has proven its appeal to all age groups, including children as young as 8 years old, who succeed in making graphene and gain the ability to identify it under a microscope. We have also presented the activity at the Manchester Science Festival, The National Science and Engineering Week, and so far at three ‘meet the scientist’ events at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). The activity, exhibit and mobile apps have been used to support the Graphene Flagship initiative, part of the EU ICT Flagships, and presented to industrialists, scientists and politicians at various events across Europe including Madrid, Brussels and Krakow. The Graphene apps have been downloaded thousands of times from the Android and iOS app-stores. The mobile apps have been used as part of outreach and public lectures on graphene, for example for the Institute of Physics (Scotland) lecture and IoP Physics Teachers Conference, by Dr. Vijayaraghavan.

Originality

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this activity is that it allows virtually anyone to make, see and handle the world’s first two-dimensional (2D) material. Everything in the world around us is 3D, which makes this a one-of-a-kind experience, and quite literally introduces the participant to a whole new world in 2D. The 2D world became accessible to scientists only in 2004, and within 7 years, we are able to bring it to the entire public audience.
Our Graphene Games and Virtual Electron Microscope apps are the only such educational nanotechnology applications currently available for mobile devices to both educate and entertain. It can be used in schools as a teaching tool, or by scientists to explain the structure of graphene, or by anyone who is curious to see how the world appears at the atomic level.

Sustainability

This activity and exhibit, which were developed for the Summer Science Exhibition, have now been adopted as a ‘Graphene Roadshow’. Through partnership with MOSI and STEM ambassador programme, we continue to take our activity and exhibit to schools in the Greater Manchester area, and engage the students as part of their educational experience. The exhibit has led to establishing a permanent graphene exhibit at MOSI, which will be opened to the public shortly. We also participate regularly at science festivals and ‘meet the scientist’ events at various locations and present our activity to the visitors, and reach thousands of participants at every such public event. This activity is available to be presented at any event or to any group in the world, and any interested parties could contact our media relations officer (daniel.cochlin@manchester.ac.uk). The activity is now also part of the outreach efforts of the North West Nanoscience Doctoral Training Centre at Manchester, to provide training and experience to PhD students in public-engagement activities. The iOS and Android apps continue to be developed and maintained as part of our commitment to the sustaining this activity.

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