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Online only: Nobel Prize winner Geim speaks at "Year of Nano" conference

By Tina Ou     10/21/10 7:00pm

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the buckyball. On Oct. 12, in spirit of the celebration, Buckyball Discovery Conference guest speaker Andre Geim, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner in physics, discussed the importance of research and building on current knowledge to explore the possibilities of science. Geim was awarded the Nobel Prize Oct. 5 for his work on graphene, which has many possible applications in the field of nanotechnology. The conference was held to commemorate the buckyball discovery and discuss the impacts and possibilities of nanotechnology. The three major topics chosen for the conference were buckyballs, nanotubes and graphene.Director of the Smalley Institute Wade Adams said Geim was not able to be at the conference in person because he had been called into a meeting with the British prime minister and minister of finance. Adams said that despite this, Geim was determined to honor his commitment and made his speech through Skype.

In his videoconference speech, Geim, a physics professor at University of Manchester in England, apologized for not being physically present and encouraged scientists and students to continue studying in the area of graphene. He said a Nobel Prize does not mean all the problems have been solved or that all ideas have been developed. According to Geim, he would not have won the Nobel Prize if not for the dedication from many scientists and researchers who sought to expand the knowledge base for graphene. Geim said discoveries often involve looking at current knowledge in different ways and described the discovery of graphene as a consequence of the discovery of fullerenes.

"It doesn't stop," Geim said. "It's not the end at all."



The Buckyball Discovery Conference, which took place Oct. 11-14, was held by the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology and sponsored by Lockheed Martin. Temporary Corporate Development Coordinator Valerie Moore, who organized the conference, said it was intended to be a one-time event. She said the institute plans to host other scientific symposia of different subjects in the future.

Adams said the eight speakers chosen for the conference were some of the most qualified people in the world, excluding any Rice faculty, who could speak on the subject of nanotechnology. Moore said Geim was asked to speak at the conference a year ago, before he was selected for the Nobel Prize.

Graphene is a single atomic layer of graphite, similar to a carbon nanotube that has been flattened to a 2-D structure. It is prized for its strength and high electrical conductivity. Graphene has potential in many applications, such as computing, solar cells and batteries.

According to Chemistry Professor James Tour, graphene has a mobility of about 1 million cm-squared per volt-second. Mobility measures how fast charge carriers can move through material. He said it could be possible to use graphene to complement silicon chips to improve computers, among other things. Tour said graphene's conductivity, thinness and strength would allow for medical applications like spinal cord repair, in which graphene's high conductivity would allow voltage to be sent through nerve cells.

Sid Richardson College junior Andrew Owens, who attended the videoconference, said he had hoped to see more on Geim's recent research on graphene and hear more about where Geim thought nanotechnology could go in the next 20 years. Owens said the conference was an amazing opportunity to celebrate the Nobel Prize winners who had worked on the Rice campus.

"A Nobel Prize draws attention to the research, and by giving the Nobel Prize to Dr. Geim, the Nobel Prize Committee is endorsing his research and bringing it into the spotlight," Owens said. "Like the 1996 Nobel Prize for the buckyball, hopefully this Nobel Prize will encourage a strong interest in nanotechnology advancement."

Adams said the applications for graphene are very exciting, although graphene had previously not been imagined to be an important material. He agreed with Geim on the importance of researching to advance science and said he hopes funding for basic research will result in new research and new nanomaterials. He said basic research was highly important to expand upon the current knowledge base of any field in science. "In such research," he said, "there is no objective but to understand and explain."

"If we can maintain funding for basic research at a high level in this country, and we can attract more kids to science and engineering, we can continue to have revolutionary breakthroughs in all fields, and especially in nanotechnology - new discoveries that can change the world, like the buckyball discovery did here at Rice 25 years ago," Adams said. "After all, kids often don't know that things are 'impossible,' so they just go and do them!"

To commemorate the buckyball discovery, room 337 of the Space Science Building was named a National Historic Chemical Landmark. on Oct. 11. The building is the first in Texas to win this award, which is given for the locations of two chemical discoveries annually around the world.

The "buckyball," C60, otherwise known as buckminsterfullerene, is a soccer ball-like, 60-carbon molecule discovered by Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley in 1985. For the discovery, they won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996. Both Kroto and Curl, a professor emeritus at Rice, attended the conference. Smalley, a Rice professor and founder of the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, died in 2005 after a six-year battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.



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