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Science Museum Group

A Brief History of Stuff
Episode 2: Sticky Tape
13 May 2021

Rebecca Chol:
Sellotape is one of the top five most critical tools in my toolkit that I have to have with me at all times. Usually when using sellotape to gift wrap, one of the biggest mistakes people make is that they peel off too much. So my advice would be: peel off just enough for the length that you’re trying to tape down, or even do it in smaller sections. That will look a lot neater and it all stopped the sticky tape from getting all over the place. One object that always sticks out in my mind that I’ve wrapped, that was really interesting and difficult, was a bicycle. Part of what made that project interesting and fun was that we wanted the recipient to know that it was a bike, but not the specific type of bike. It was difficult because having to get the wrapping paper in all the nooks and crannies and making sure that it was well wrapped and the sellotape was in the right place and hidden, it was just really interesting.

Nihal Arthanayake:
I’m Nihal Arthanayake and this is A Brief History of Stuff. In this podcast you’re going to hear fascinating stories about the ordinary objects around you, all inspired by historic items from the Science Museum Group Collection.

Rebecca Chol:
My name is Rebecca Chol and I am a luxury gift wrapping expert. So I work with corporate and private clients on all their gift wrapping needs from sourcing the perfect gift, to wrapping it and making sure it gets to the recipient safely.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Now, Rebecca, hello.

Rebecca Chol:
Hi Nihal, how are you today?

Nihal Arthanayake:
I’m good. I’m good. So lovely to meet you and your miles of sticky tape [laughter]. Today, we’re going to be chatting with a Curator from the Science and Industry Museum about why they also have sticky tape in the Collection. Not something, I guess, you would think of Rebecca, that would be in the Science Museum? So, I guess, it’s a integral part of what you do, but not something you spend that much time thinking about, I can imagine?

Rebecca Chol:
I, I do have to admit, I take sticky tape for granted. The only time I, you know, think about it is when I need it and I don’t have it. So I do take it for granted. I must admit.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Okay. So here’s a little bit of a quiz, right, Rebecca, and I’m putting myself on the spot here as well. Why do you think it is that that the Science and Industry Museum would be interested in sticky tape?

Rebecca Chol:
Um…

Nihal Arthanayake:
Outside of the gift shop.

Rebecca Chol:
Scientific use, have they used it to discover something amazing?

Nihal Arthanayake:
Is the Large Hadron Collider put together with sticky?

Rebecca Chol:
You know, if it was, I’d have a new level of admiration for sticky tape, to be honest [laughter].

Nihal Arthanayake:
And that’s the beauty of this podcast, isn’t it? It’s the ordinary objects that you think around you, but actually for inclusion in the Science and Industry Museum, I guess they’d have to be extraordinary, wouldn’t they? But I’ve got someone who can give us a more informed sense of why sticky tape is in their Museum. Hello, Sarah.

Sarah Baines:
Hello!

Nihal Arthanayake:
So, tell us what you do for a living then.

Sarah Baines:
So, I’m Curator of Engineering at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Okay. And does that mean that most of the Engineering in the Collection is held together by sticky tape? [Laughter]

Sarah Baines:
I hope not. No. yeah, we’ve got all sorts of things in the Collection. Loads of them are quite, sort of, complicated science subjects. We’ve got some great, huge chunky Engineering Collections, but we’ve also got some interesting, small, familiar objects, like sticky tape too.

Nihal Arthanayake:
So for years, sticky tape has been an integral part of what Rebecca does, but by her own admission, I don’t want put words In your mouth here, Rebecca [laughter], you haven’t perhaps given it the respect it deserves. Would that be fair to say?

Rebecca Chol:
Clearly. So I’m waiting to hear all about the amazing things that sticky tape can do from a scientific perspective.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Exactly. Exactly. So why Sarah, do you have sticky tape in the Collection?

Sarah Baines:
Well, yeah. Good question. So it’s all because of a newly discovered, wonder material called Graphene, that you might have heard of. So it’s actually been, sort of, right in front of our nose all the time, because it’s made of ordinary graphite. That is the lead in a pencil. And graphite; it’s actually made of loads of millions, in fact, of incredibly thin layers of Graphene and scientists have known that for quite a long time, but what they didn’t know was how to peel off one of these layers. And two scientists working in Manchester won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for doing just that, using an awful lot of curiosity and perseverance, and also a role of ordinary everyday sticky tape.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Why is Graphene a game changer then? Why is it so important for us?

Sarah Baines:
The thing about Graphene is that it’s got loads of really special properties all in one material. So it’s the thinnest, the strongest, the most conductive material ever discovered. I mean, to give you a bit of context, it’s a million times thinner than paper, but at the same time, 200 times stronger than steel and a hundred times more conductive than copper. So all of these properties that we’re used to from our materials, it just completely blows them out of the water. If you look at it under a really powerful microscope, it’s like a hexagonal lattice shape of carbon atoms. So in effect at best, it looks like chicken wire, when you look at it really close up. But it’s completely invisible to the human eye in a day to day sense. We can’t see it at all. It’s basically invisible to us.

Nihal Arthanayake:
If I wanted a millimetre thick slice, as it were of Graphene, how many layers would that entail?

Sarah Baines:
Well a millimetre thick piece of Graphite is about 3 million layers of Graphene. So Graphene…

Nihal Arthanayake:
Wow!

Sarah Baines:
…Yes. So just that gives you a really good sense of the scale of what we’re talking about with a layer of Graphene. It’s just, you know, infinitesimely thin. It’s unbelievably thin. It’s one atom thick, you know, it’s just the thinnest possible material you could ever have. A lot of scientists thought it couldn’t possibly be stable because they thought this diaphanously thin sort of gossamer piece of Graphene would just fold back in on itself, you know, crumple like tissue paper, but it doesn’t, that’s the remarkable thing. It’s, it’s actually really stable and it’s also really bendy and stretchy. That immediately fires off your imagination and makes you think, wow, what could we do with it? With all of those properties?

Nihal Arthanayake:
I’m having a Tony Stark moment here, when you’re telling me all of this, thinking to myself, I’m going to get a Graphene suit, at some point.

Sarah Baines:
Well, yeah, I mean the two trajectories with applications is this the kind of blue sky thinking. So people think yeah, so like super soldier, mech suit, or like brain implants for controlling people’s mind or a space elevator or something like really, sort of, zany like that. But I think like the other path is, the more realistic path, is things like making our, everything that we have, work better for us. So if you have plastic, you can make it lighter and stronger. If you have rubber, you can make it tougher and last longer. It can make batteries work better than they already do. I actually think the most interesting thing about it is what it’s going to secretly sort of quietly do beneath the surface, just to make everything work that bit better.

Nihal Arthanayake:
It’s extraordinary. Of course it was 2010 that they won the Nobel Prize. When did they actually start embarking on this journey, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov.

Sarah Baines:
It was actually 2003 when they started working on it. There’s a really interesting story there because the circumstances when Graphene was isolated was part of what was called a Friday Night Experiment. So this was Andre Geimes sort of brainchild, and he’d been doing it for a few decades, which was sort of ostensibly an opportunity to like really think outside the box on an old topic. So the Graphene was perfect. Because for, you know, for decades, a hundred years, scientists had sort of theorized about Graphene, had never got to the bottom of it. And Friday Night Experiment was perfect for that – was like right, let’s think about it afresh. See if we can come up with a new solution to an old problem. And he’d had some really interesting successes previously involving floating frog and hamster and other types of sticky tapes. So we can come back to that…[laughter]

Nihal Arthanayake:
Um no. I’m not going to move on from that, because that is too weird to ignore. Why were they trying to make frogs and hamsters float?

Sarah Baines:
Yeah, it’s a great story. And I think it really captures the sort of novel approach that Andre and Kostya had and that led to Graphene. Andre was working with an absolutely enormous, incredibly expensive electromagnet and just, I mean, off the scale expensive, and one night he poured some water and into the bowl of the electromagnet and it floated. In effect it was like beads of water floating. An electromagnet, if it’s powerful enough. And it has to be very powerful for this to work, it will seem to levitate it in a magnetic field. So he thought, well what else has a high water content that we can do this to, and came up with the idea of a frog. So yeah, he actually put a frog into the bar of the electromagnet, and it kind of like wobbles around and looks like its sort of swimming in air. Brilliant video. He also did it to his pet hamster and just as a little disclaimer, no frog, or hamsters were harmed in the experiment; everyone was fine. The hamster went on to live a long and happy life.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Good. That was going to be the next question. That was definitely going to be the next question. Okay. And at some point then did scientific ethics stop him or Andre from climbing on board and seeing whether they would float.

Sarah Baines:
You know, I think that you would have needed a much, much bigger electromagnet. That was probably the only thing that stopped them.

Nihal Arthanayake:
You said that this magnet was very, very, very expensive.

Sarah Baines:
Yeah.

Nihal Arthanayake:
What would it be usually used for because presumably whoever paid for it, didn’t say this is for the Department of Frog Floating. [Laughter]

Sarah Baines:
No, I mean, it is a certain extent to which it’s a bit of a stunt, but you know, it really caught people’s imagination. And I think there’s a lot of value to that because it really inspired a lot of children. And one of the sort of really treasured possessions that he has was, was a letter from, I think a seven year old girl at the time who read about this research and saw the frog video. And she was really excited about it and said, wow, how did you do that? Like, I want to be a scientist so I can work out what you did. And he’s really proud of that. He actually won a Ig Nobel Prize for it. So the Ig Nobles are awards for science that makes people laugh and then makes them think, which kind of captures my point really. So he’s actually the only person to have won both an Ig Noble Prize and then later the Nobel Prize. And he said that he’s actually quite proud of his Ig Noble prize. I’m not going to say more then the Nobel Prize in Physics, but yeah, I think it’s quite high up there for him.

Nihal Arthanayake:
So what were the different aspects of them trying to discover how to peel these ultra thin layers of Graphene away before they got to the most simple? Or did they get to that quite early on?

Sarah Baines:
No people have been trying all different methodologies really, for a long time. I think in some ways people had sort of given up on it because people had tried all of the like, what the first thing you would think of. So there was like mechanical exfoliation where you rub and rub away at it and just try and get left with a really thin piece of Graphite. There was chemical exfoliation. So you could try and use chemicals to split apart those thin layers. So him and his Grad students were in the lab, sort of, not fooling around, but you know, blue sky thinking about what to do. And there was one person trying to work out how to do it by sort of, you know, grinding down on a piece of Graphite. And then one of the other grad students remembered this little detail that it’s actually a normal thing they do – they use a piece of sticky tape to clean the graphite before putting it under the microscope and he thought, hang on a minute – has anyone actually checked those pieces of sellotape we’ve been throwing away to see if it’s got flakes of graphite on it. And it did. So they actually went fishing around in the bin to find some of these used pieces of sticky tape. Put them under a microscope and realised, like, oh wow, yeah, they actually have really thin, transparent pieces of Graphite on them. I think we’re onto something. When they actually realized that they’d actually done it. That actually, so it was this Holy Grail thing people have been sort of speculating about for, about a hundred years, you know, this idea of peeling off one layer and basically given up on it. Later Andre joked that every time someone was throwing away that piece of sticky tape after cleaning the Graphite sample, they were actually throwing away the Nobel Prize. So yeah. Who would have thought that it would be sticky tape that would do it in the end.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Rebecca, will you be able to look at your extensive collection of sticky tape in the same way ever again, now that you’ve heard Sarah speak?

Rebecca Chol:
I will never underestimate sticky tape again, and I apologize to the sticky tape gods. [Laughter] So I think for me, as Sarah was speaking, my mind was just thinking about all the different things and the craziest things that can be done with this material and the endless possibilities. And I’m thinking about indestructible gift wrapping paper, reusable, gift, wrapping paper and things like that. Like it’s just endless at the moment. Isn’t it with Graphene?

Sarah Baines:
I love the idea of using it for, er, wrapping paper. That’s great.

Nihal Arthanayake:
So where do you keep the sticky tape at the museum then?

Sarah Baines:
Because it’s made of plastic, obviously it has to have special conditions. So it’s in a really nice, dry, safe, stable sort of environment. It was in the Wonder Materials exhibition about Gtaphene a few years ago. And it was the first object that visitors came to. When it was in a little case, all on its own, to really show how it’s like on a pedestal. And it’s this really important sellotape dispenser. It was donated to us actually by Kostya Novoselov himself. So I hope it’s the actual one that they used in the experiment. That’s what he said. So people think of, you know, the expensive equipment, the really complicated scientific equipment, and that stuff’s really important too, but it would have been so easy to not keep that everyday object, that sticky tape dispenser. So I think it’s fantastic that right from the start Kostya realised like – oh, someone might be interested in this.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Are scientists taught though, to constantly reappraise the obvious? Because this is of course a perfect example of where you just don’t see it in front of you. And then of course, once it’s explained, once you discover it, you think – doh, why didn’t I think about that before?

Sarah Baines:
Yeah, exactly.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Isn’t science always challenging itself in that way?

Sarah Baines:
Certainly. Andre especially. He’s, he’s always said that it’s really important to have a playful approach. And he has said that the biggest adventure in his opinion is to move into an area in which he’s not an expert, which is a really fascinating idea because these are people who have spent, you know, decades of learning and research and, you know, the real experts in the field. And then they move into a different field that they’re not an expert in. It’s a really interesting idea that, you know, not letting the grass grow is a way of always moving forward into a new area. That’s kind of fresh and exciting for you and that you kind of seeing it with fresh eyes and seeing possibly new solutions that people haven’t seen – that they’ve been working on it for decades. And a nice way of putting it is that Andre’s joked sometimes that he’s not interested in doing research or any search. So, even though he won the Nobel Prize in physics for isolating Graphene, Andrea and Kostya have both actually moved out of that field now. They’ve both sort of gone on to pastures new and they’re both researching actively now into all other very thin, self atomic layer, thin materials that are actually not Graphene. They’ve kind of been there and done that. And they’ve already moved on, actually.

Nihal Arthanayake:
I’m thinking about the qualities that scientists need in order to do what they need to do. And I’m wondering if you actually share many of those qualities, Rebecca, in what you do.

Rebecca Chol:
I’d like to think. So I’d like to think I’m like a brainy scientist and hopefully win the Nobel Prize one day. Yeah.

Nihal Arthanayake:
How has technology changed what you do? How has it made it different? What are the latest trends in what you do?

Rebecca Chol:
With the pandemic it’s actually forced me to think forward in terms of, okay, what’s coming next, you know, in terms of technology that can help me improve or maintain the quality of service that I offer to my clients. Now, there are a lot of videos on YouTube that you can see how far, you know, the stylizing of gift wrapping has come from say, you know, five years ago, two years ago. So, for my perspective it’s just thinking about how awesome would it be to have like a really, really thin piece of paper that’s so malleable, that’s so in-destructive, you know. If you think about trying to gift wrap a bicycle, the amount of times that paper rips, where you’re trying to get around the wheel, or you’re trying to get it around the handle and things like that so…

Sarah Baines:
What it makes me think of is, I mean, you’re saying that the thin wrapping paper is easier to work with, but I remember in the past, I’ve definitely bought some like really cheap, rubbish thin wrapping paper. And like, as soon as you try and wrap the present, it just rips and it’s absolutely rubbish. I’m not going to name any shops.

Rebecca Chol:
Yeah, give me a call afterwards. I’ll tell you where to get the good thin paper. [Laughter] Not as, not as good as Graphene, but…[Laughter]

Nihal Arthanayake:
So considering Sarah, that we are 11 years since they won the Nobel Prize for this. Where 18 years since they started work on it. What are the barriers that are stopping these amazing innovations that you spoke of, from becoming a reality?

Sarah Baines:
I think there’s probably a few different factors, to be honest. I think like one thing is collaboration and funding. Because as we know with science, it’s all about collaboration and working with other people. And I think that’s really the key thing. There’s also the issue of production, of quantities, of like sort of mass producing quantities of Graphene for the right applications. But also I think Graphene really suffered from almost bit too much popularity at first. So I think it’s set people’s expectations so incredibly high that people have this perception that it’s kind of, you know, been a bit slow and hasn’t reached its potential. It’s actually speeding ahead really fast. One of my favorite things about Graphene is I think it’s got the potential to make technology just quite a lot greener right across the board. So if you think of cars or public transport, or even airplanes, could be considerably lighter and even stronger than they are now, that would hugely reduce the amount of fuel that you’d need to travel.

There’s also the battery performance that I mentioned earlier, it’s a huge part of our technology. It’s kind of a limiting factor on sort of de-carbonization, you know, moving over to using electricity rather than directly using fossil fuels. One of the things that researchers are working on, which could have some fantastic implications for people around the world is that you could make a filter device that could really quickly turn sea water into drinking water. It has these fantastic properties where you can create sheaths that really draw water through it, and they can filter the most, the tiniest particles out of, out of water. I like to imagine it could take the form of a straw where you could just like sort of, drink the sea water up through the straw. And it would be like fresh water by the time you were drinking it. Another property that Graphene has is that it’s extremely stable and inert. So a lot of people are speculating about medical applications. So, you can imagine some sort of really thin, flexible electronic device made of Graphene that could be printed directly onto your clothing or even onto your skin or even under your skin that could monitor your health and potentially even deliver treatment when needed.

I think it hasn’t found its, its unique application yet. I would say. And it’s completely normal for a new material for it, to take this long, for it to really sort of find its feet. I mean, Silicon was isolated for, you know, many, many decades before anyone ever thought of using it for computing. So yeah, I think at the moment we’ve got sort of Graphene 1.0, and it’ll be 2.0 where it’s sort of still in that early phase of development where people are still, I mean, people are still thinking in terms of how do we actually produce enough of this stuff because obviously it’s not practical to use a bit of sticky tape every time you want to make some Graphene. You couldn’t ever really do much with that. You can’t make space elevator that way, can you?

Nihal Arthanayake:
So where can people come and see this tech? Where can people see this sticky tape?

Sarah Baines:
I’m afraid that it’s not on display at the moment, but it’s safely, safely in-store. Ready for, ready for the next blockbuster exhibition about Graphene, that I’m sure will be coming in the future.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Next to Tisha the floating hamster.

Sarah Baines:
Maybe. [Laughter] Draw the crowds.

Nihal Arthanayake:
Exactly. Thank you Sarah. Thank you Rebecca.

Nihal Arthanayake:
A Brief History of Stuff is a Storythings / Science Museum Group Production. Each episode features a story inspired by incredible items from the Science Museum Group Collection. The Collection contains more than 7 million items, which illustrate the impact of science, technology, engineering and medicine on all of our lives. If you’d like to discover more stories about the everyday objects around you, visit sciencemuseum.org.uk and search for ‘Everyday Technology’. Thanks to our guest, Rebecca Chol and to curator Sarah Baines from the Science and Industry Museum, for taking part in this episode. The series Producer is Will Stanley and Executive Producer is Hugh Garry. The Script Editor is Ian Stedman, Audio Editor is Kenya Scarlet, research for this episode was by Sarah Baines. We would like to thank everyone from the Science Museum Group who made this podcast possible. If you like a Brief History of Stuff, we’d be over the moon, if you would tell your friends and rate us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thank you for listening. I hope we’ve inspired you to wonder a little more about the remarkable stuff around you. But don’t, and I repeat, don’t attempt to float your pet hamster. It’s not going to end well.

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