And to think the discovery almost didn’t happen.
During his doctoral years at Columbia University, physicist Andrea Young and colleagues tried to perfect the environment around graphene, the single-atom-thick material derived from graphite. It conducts heat and electricity efficiently and is 100 times stronger than the strongest steel, but because it’s so thin, graphene is strongly influenced by its surroundings. A dirty substrate, for example, degrades its electronic and optical properties.
Trying to solve the problem but making little headway, Young and his collaborators nearly gave up.
“After a year of frustration, we were ready to call it quits,” recalled Young, now an assistant professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara. “We had hints that putting graphene on a sheet of hexagonal boron nitride might make cleaner electronic devices, but we couldn’t get rid of these large wrinkles. We finally managed to cut them away, and when we cooled down the first wrinkle-free sample, we immediately saw a subtle effect of electronic correlations that had only been hinted at before.”