Go back to article: From 2D to 3D: the story of graphene in objects

Sticky tape dispenser

Graphene was first isolated using ordinary sticky tape, a surprising fact that made the graphene origin story particularly appealing to science journalists and the scientific community alike. Scientists already knew about the theoretical existence of materials comprising single atomic layers but no-one had previously been able to isolate a single layer. Scientists since 1859 had been trying to achieve this using chemical and mechanical exfoliation methods involving expensive and specialised equipment (Brodie, 1859). However, when a single sheet of graphene was finally isolated, it was done using a cheap and familiar piece of equipment.

Figure 1

Colour photograph of a sticky tape dispenser

Sticky tape dispenser, 2002. This sticky tape was routinely used to clean graphite samples in preparation for microscopy before it became the unlikely centre of a major scientific breakthrough. Donated by Professor Konstantin Novoselov

The story of how graphene was first isolated using sticky tape was recounted by Andre Geim in his Nobel Lecture (Geim, 2010). He explained that while working on the graphene problem, Oleg Shklyarevskii, a senior fellow from Kharkov, Ukraine,

‘…Interjected by bringing over a piece of cellotape [sic] with graphite flakes attached to it. Allegedly, he just fished out the tape from a litter bin […] a fresh surface of graphite is normally prepared by removing a top layer with sticky tape. We used this technique for years but never looked carefully at what was thrown away along with the tape. I looked in the microscope at the remnants of graphite and found pieces much thinner [than had been achieved by other methods]’ (Geim, 2010, p 79).

A mass-produced and unremarkable object more familiar in an office than in a science laboratory, this particular tape dispenser is nonetheless special because it was the actual dispenser used in the discovery of graphene and hence forms part of an extraordinary story. The dispenser was donated to the Museum of Science and Industry by Novoselov in 2006 as part of a contemporary collecting project inspired by the isolation of graphene in Manchester. This object is a prime example of the sort of everyday equipment that is part of a science story, but often lost over time precisely because it is so mundane. Ordinary though it is, visitors can recognise and engage with this object and it provides a quirky, attention-grabbing gateway into the graphene story.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181004/003