That year, Andre Geim stumbled upon graphene's wonders. A Russian-born scientist at the University of Manchester in Britain, he wanted thin graphite to study its electrical properties. A doctoral student suggested using cellophane tape.
Dr. Geim and his colleagues used the tape to peel off layers of graphite until they got to a layer so thin it was transparent. When they could peel no further, they had graphene. Not only did it not fall apart, it was strong, flexible and possessed astonishing electrical properties.
Other scientists were initially skeptical. "Not many people believed us," says Dr. Geim. But by March 2006, when he presented at a Baltimore conference, his session was packed, recalls Cambridge's Dr. Ferrari. "Finally, I understood how significant the material was going to be," he says.
In 2010, Dr. Geim and a colleague, Konstantin Novoselov, won the Nobel Prize in physics for their graphene work. By that time, corporate labs, universities like Rice and Harvard University, and academic institutions in China had begun to increase graphene research. In 2010, Japanese and South Korean scientists unveiled prototype graphene touch screens.
Labs at Samsung and Sungkyunkwan University, in particular, began to stand out for the volume of their research. "Although the basic research on graphene started in Europe and the U.S., the early research for commercial applications started in Korea," says Changgu Lee, a Sungkyunkwan graphene researcher. "We want to keep the lead."
A Samsung spokeswoman declined to comment on the company's graphene work.