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Graphene, a single-atom-thick sheet of carbon, is stronger than steel and as stiff as diamond. Yet, this tough, thin material can also be induced to peel itself to pieces.

Puncturing a hole in graphene with a diamond tip and repeatedly moving that tip back and forth — rather like rucking up a carpet — causes narrow strips of carbon to curl spontaneously upwards, tearing out of the graphene layer and even folding back on themselves, scientists from Trinity College Dublin report in an article in Nature1 on 13 July.

The discovery is “entirely surprising”, says James Tour, a specialist in nanotechnology at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Tour says that since the technique is in its infancy and the researchers haven't yet demonstrated they can control it, it's hard to see exactly how it could be used. But the discoverers of the effect, physicists Graham Cross and James Annett, think that it should be possible to control the size of the ribbons and the way that they peel and fold, potentially making them useful in electronic circuitry.

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