As I See It: The Game Changer
June 16, 2014 Victor Rozek
What’s tougher than a diamond, but able to filter water; stronger than steel, but thinner than a butterfly’s wings? Give up? OK, it does sound improbable, unless aliens are involved. So let’s try this: What’s more flexible than a Yoga instructor, and predicted to thoroughly shake up the computer industry? No, it’s not Miley Cyrus. But it is made from the same element on which life depends. Even repulsive life.
It is, in fact, pure carbon, and not much of it at that. It’s as thin as thin can get and still be considered a material. In effect, it qualifies as the world’s first two-dimensional substance, and it comes in the form of a very anorexic, nearly transparent sheet, which is only one atom thick. Or about the size of a teenage Ralph Lauren fashion model.
Like many scientific breakthroughs, this one happened serendipitously. Back in 2004, physicist Andre Geim and his colleague Konstantin Novoselow were trying to cut graphite into the thinnest possible slices with the high-tech equivalent of a cheese grater. But they were struggling to get beyond layers that were less than 10,000 atoms thick. The slicing process, however, produced residue, and the researchers would regularly use Scotch tape to clean the graphite surface. The tape was then discarded, and the clean surface would be examined and measured. Then someone got the bright idea to ignore the graphite and examine the tape. Under a microscope they saw “really transparent pieces of graphite” arranged in a honeycomb lattice. Tada! Please put your hands together for graphene.
As unexpected lab events go, this one was a winner. Among other honors, it won its discoverers the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics. Scotch tape didn’t even get an honorable mention. But as its properties began to be understood, graphene garnered widespread mention both in the scientific and tech communities.
For one thing, graphene is an exquisite conductor of electricity. Joshua Fruhlinger, writing for GQ, recounts that researchers at UCLA “turned graphene into a battery that charges in seconds and leaves no negative environmental waste behind.” (As apposed to all that “positive environmental waste,” which is seldom left behind.) In any event, graphene’s sun-friendliness, ultra-light weight, flexibility, and quick-charging potential open the door to a myriad of possibilities.
Generating power with solar panels is problematic. They are typically bulky, expensive, and ugly. Covering a sizeable surface of sun-baked earth is costly and material-intensive. But with a thickness of a single atom (about one-millionth the width of a single strand of hair), a miniscule amount of graphene can cover a huge area. “One gram,” says Geim, “could cover a whole football pitch.” (Which, in the peculiar English they speak in Britain, means soccer field.) It’s another way of saying: if you have investments in companies that produce solar panels, sell now.
These same properties promise to transform commercial aviation. The Swiss have engineered a photovoltaic solar-powered airplane, dubbed Solar Impulse 2, that can fly 24 hours without using a drop of fuel. It has successfully flown across the United States, and will soon attempt a round-the-world flight. Theoretically, it can stay airborne indefinitely, without consuming costly fuel or spitting out costly pollution. But while photovoltaic cell technology is good, graphene promises to be better. It will be cheaper to produce, weigh less (critical in aviation), and provide greater efficiency because it absorbs more light than photovoltaics.
And, since graphene is flexible, says Fruhlinger, “we could one day turn our clothing into photovoltaic cells. Just, you know, plug your laptop into your shirt and you’re good to go.”
But graphene may not only power your laptop, it may become your laptop. Currently, computer technology is limited by the design of chips and printed circuit boards. Fruhlinger says “it is now being suggested that graphene can be changed into different configurations on the fly by simply manipulating it with lasers. That means that it could take on the form of different computers in just seconds, freeing us from hard-printed, static motherboards.”
And if your device hungers for data, how about a wireless terabit download in, say, one second. That’s the equivalent of ten high-definition movies obtained just on the slow side of instantly. Researchers at Georgia Tech created a graphene antenna that can move data a million times faster than basic broadband. Theoretically, data rates of up to 100 terabits per second are possible.
But, as cable TV commercials say when trying to sell you stuff you don’t need by offering you more of it: that’s not all. This particular stuff has medical applications as well. At molecular thicknesses, graphene would make a nonintrusive implant that could monitor multiple aspects of the inner environment from blood composition to DNA sequencing.
And if that’s not enough, Fruhlinger says graphene can make your water “taste awesome.” Since it’s both porous and programmable, it can be configured as a “smart filter.” How smart? It can examine water at the atomic level, filtering out harmful chemicals and bacteria, and letting benign material through. With unpolluted drinking water becoming an increasingly rare and precious commodity, the possibility of reclaiming what has been fouled, or desalinating seawater contaminated by–among other things–radioactive waste, would dramatically decrease the health risks endured by a large swath of humanity.
What else graphene may do is only limited by imagination and inventiveness. And although it may be another decade before it becomes commercially viable, researchers are already predicting that graphene will have a profoundly transformative effect on all aspects computer technology–in the same way that the integrated circuit became a game changer when it was first developed in 1958.
Leigh Brackett was a science fiction writer who may have provided Arthur C. Clark the inspiration for his now-famous dictum: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Because her relationship to technology was literary rather than scientific, she was able to observe that advanced technology was “witchcraft to the ignorant, simple science to the learned.”
With all respect to Brackett, things have moved way beyond simple science. The materials concocted in research labs display magical properties in substance and application. For the average user, the complexity of the devices we palm so casually is, without doubt, entering the realm of the mystifying. And as magic becomes a commodity, it acquires a misleading ordinariness. It creates the illusion that we are all magicians.
Mark Miodownik is a materials scientist who argues that our culture and identity are shaped by the materials we create. In his recent book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, he explores the origins, properties, and contributions of a variety of materials throughout history. From paper, which facilitated writing, to stained glass that adorned soaring cathedrals and forever changed the experience of worship, to concrete and steel that allowed the construction of great cities, Miodownik looks at the human experience through the amazing stuff we create. And although the book is, by necessity, retrospective, there is one material with such potential that he includes it even though its importance and utility have yet to be proven: graphene.