on October 15th, 2010

Dear Colleagues

‘A sheet of graphene (a form of carbon that appears as hexagonal shapes arranged in a flat layer) the same thickness as plastic refrigerator wrap, stretched over a coffee cup, can support the weight of a truck bearing down on a pencil point’ (New York Times).

Besides being incredibly strong, it is an unimaginably thin material, stiff and yet stretchable, a super conductor of electricity and the best known conductor of heat. And it is chemically inert. Although only discovered a few years ago, it is distinctly possible that graphene could, for example, replace silicon as a building block in computer chips, help build enormous flat screen TVs, be employed in electronics requiring flexibility and in advanced composite materials. (Furthermore, an exciting thought has occurred to me – will this breakthrough result in a use for carbon - that vexing problem?) As you would know, the discovery of graphene recently resulted in a well-deserved Nobel Prize for Physics to the Russian born physicists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, both working at the University of Manchester in the UK.

While the discovery of the material itself is incredible, the process of discovery (to my mind) is far more astounding and should serve as an inspiration to us all. Researchers had given up - a decade or so ago - on isolating graphite into one-carbon atom-thick graphene, surmising that it was a theoretical material that couldn't be created in the real world. Geim and Novoselov (presumably the usual poverty stricken researchers) worked out a simple way of extracting graphene by simply using the 'Scotch tape technique'. This initially involved digging out graphite samples that had been tossed away by other researchers. They then simply folded adhesive tape against the graphite crystals whilst peeling the tape apart repeatedly. In this way, they extracted single sheets of graphene which remained stable at room temperature. And then, with further extensive and painstaking research, they identified the incredible properties of grapheme - which led to their Nobel Prizes.

We tend to assume that we need massive labs, numerous, highly trained researchers and billion dollar budgets to make engineering and scientific research breakthroughs. Quite often it is the opposite. You certainly need a questioning and critical mind, a mind that is sponge-like; to absorb new ideas and approaches and to keenly experiment with new approaches. Most work and experimentation will probably result in disappointing failures, but the trick is to keep persisting.

Despite winning the Nobel Prize and becoming justly famous, Geim and Novoselov continue to work in the lab and are modest about their achievements.

What can we do about it?
• Change your mindset to seek breakthroughs in your (perhaps)mundane engineering day-to-day work
• Forget about spending a fortune in R & D, but harness the modest day-to-day resources you have
• Constantly and persistently look at what may appear, on the surface,  to be silly and test these ideas
• Study, review and understand new approaches to problem solving
• Keep learning and researching
• Remember as that famous engineer, Thomas Edison remarked:

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.

How many incredible engineering breakthroughs do you have unwittingly in your hands today?

Thanks to Katie Faber of Chimes of Calvin College, The New York Times and Chemical and Engineering News for interesting reading and references.

Yours in engineering learning


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