Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov had long suspected that lurking inside the pencil there was a 21st century wonder material crying to be released. The problem was harvesting the ultra thin strips of graphite that they needed. In the end the answer to their problem was bewilderingly simple.
By deploying an everyday length of Scotch tape to tear off strips of the mineral, the University of Manchester physicists created the world's thinnest material – the width of a single atom. The finished product was 10,000 times slimmer than a soap bubble, but also 100 times stronger than steel and able to stretch by up to 20 per cent of its length. Their invention: graphene.
The discovery of the two-dimensional material will, it is confidently predicted, become a £30billion-a-year-commodity within the next decade, revolutionising industries from consumer electronics to aeronautics as well as offering valuable new insights into quantum physics.
Yesterday, in what is being hailed as a triumph for the benefits of pure curiosity-driven research, the nanotechnology breakthrough earned the two Russian born scientists a Nobel Prize.
While Professor Geim, 51, becomes the first scientist to win both the Nobel and the igNoble Prize – the latter a tongue-in-cheek award for his 1997 collaboration in the field of magnetic levitation which saw him defy scientific probabilities by suspending a frog in mid air – his research partner Dr Novoselov, 36, is the youngest Nobel laureate for nearly 40 years.
Despite the £1m prize awarded for their discovery of graphene, the researchers were trying to continue with business in Manchester as usual.
"My work is my hobby," said Professor Geim, who has also given the world "gecko tape", modeled on the lizard's famous gravity-defying grip.
"People call me a workaholic but I enjoy doing my job. We are always trying to change our subject – moving from one subject to another – and we try to find out what other things work. And on the few occasions that we do it can be fun."
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted the energy and joy of their work. Announcing the prize, the Nobel committee said: "Playfulness is one of their hallmarks. With the building blocks they had at their disposal they attempted to create something new, sometimes even by just allowing their brains to meander aimlessly."
Professor Geim turned down offers from leading universities around the world so that he and his wife could work together in Manchester. In 2001 he invited his former PhD student to join him – successfully extracting graphene three years later. "I like it here, I like the people and I like the way things are," said Professor Geim. "At the moment we are like gold miners we are putting stakes in the ground and trying to figure out what is there." The pair are also looking at quantum fluids and NanoOptics.
But it will be graphene with which their names will be forever associated. Professor Geim said it could be just two years until the first applications reach the market place. Researchers at Samsung are said to be close to exploiting another of its unique properties – transparency – by pioneering the material in touch-screens. It could also lead to the first wristband mobile phone technology as well as up to 50 other areas including highly sensitive cells monitoring pollution or provide solar energy.
Dr Novoselov was chatting online to a friend in Holland yesterday morning when the news came through. "It was quite shocking," he said.
"Every October someone speculates about this and you learn not to pay attention." He added: "We'd just try crazy things and sometimes they worked and sometimes not. Graphene was one of those that worked from the very beginning."
Manchester University now boasts four Nobel laureates on its current staff.
What is graphene?
Graphene is a sheet of bonded carbon atoms closely packed in a honeycomb crystal lattice resembling chicken wire. Hailed as one of 50 ideas that will change science for ever soon after it was first isolated in 2004, the researchers began by questioning whether there was a whole class of two dimensional materials in an otherwise three dimensional world.
The result – which heralds a new carbon-based era of technological development – was graphene, which challenged conventional thinking on the way materials worked. Despite its thinness it is impermeable to gases or liquids. It is harder than diamond but as bendy as rubber, is able to conduct heat and electricity better than copper and could – ultimately – be turned into transistors faster than those made from silicon.