British-based scientists have created graphene, supposedly the thinnest material in the world: a one atom thick layer of carbon formed in hexagonal gropus. The substance, which is about 200,000 thinner than a human hair, was created two years ago but could be made only when stuck to another material. Researchers at the University of Manchester, England, have now managed to manufacture it as a film suspended between the nanoscale bars of scaffolding made from gold. Such a feat was held to be impossible by theorists, backed up by experimentation, because it is in effect a two-dimensional crystal that is supposed to be destroyed instantly by heat. It is so stable that it holds together in vacuums and at room temperature; it is thought to be able to exist because it undulates slightly. All other known materials oxidize, decompose and become unstable at sizes ten times the thickness. It was created by scientists at the University of Manchester, working with the Max Planck Institute in Germany. "This is a completely new type of technology — even nanotechnology is not the right word to describe these new membranes. We have made proof-of-concept devices and believe that the technology transfer to other areas should be straightforward. The real challenge is to make such membranes cheap and readily available for large-scale applications," said Professor Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester.
Possible applications for the new advancement are expected in researching new drugs and to separate gases into their constituent parts. In medical research the membrane, which at single-atom thickness measures 0.35 nanometers, could be used as the support for molecules being analyzed by electron microscopes. The thinness of graphene membranes is such that the electrons would have much less irrelevant material to pass through and so be able to give a clearer picture of the structure of molecules, especially the proteins believed to hold the key to a generation of medicines. It can also be used to vastly increase computer speeds; it can potentially one day replace silicon because it can be used as a faster transistor that consumes less power. Leonid Ponomarenko, of the University of Manchester, is optimistic that it can be turned into a commercial success: "The technology has managed to progress steadily from millimetre-sized transistors to current microprocessors with individual elements down to ten nanometres in size. The next logical step is true nanometer-sized circuits."