Humans. What defines us a species on this planet? To be fair, there’s really no one right answer. Love, friendship, law, government, war…answering with any or all of the above would probably earn you a spot in the winner’s circle. Instead, I believe the most important facet of humanity is something less bold and more practical: crafting and using tools. For whatever reason (perhaps magical black monoliths placed by aliens for us to find) our species is driven not only to understand and survive the elements, but to master and control them. Generation after generation, we have unlocked the secret utilities of nature and then used them to transform our environment. From woodworking and taming fire to synthesizing plastics and manufacturing silicon semiconductors, the miracle materials we successfully exploit to craft tools defines the speed and direction of our progress as a species.
Importantly however, while we humans do have about three million years of scientific discovery under our belt, it is probably safe to say we are not masters of the elements – just look at the miraculous materials that never panned out for us. So what could be next for mankind? Years of research has led scientists to discover something ostensibly harder, better, faster, and stronger than anything currently in commercial use. Cue the Daft Punk and a little something known as graphene.
A lot has been written about graphene since Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for isolating the material from graphite and demonstrating its unique properties, but a quick primer may be in order. First theorized in the 1940s, graphene is a two-dimensional grid of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice structure. At just one atom thick (as opposed to graphite, which is a three-dimensional hexagonal lattice of carbon), graphene exhibits a molecularly stable structure previously thought impossible at such a miniscule size. It is the small size and stability of this carbon allotrope that allows for its extraordinary electronic, mechanical and optical qualities.
Briefly stated, graphene is roughly 300x stronger than steel, 1000x lighter than paper, more electrically conductive than copper, almost completely transparent and is extremely mechanically flexible. It’s not difficult to see how these qualities converge to allow for graphene applications across an endless number of industries – next generation batteries and computer processors, biomechanical sensors, foldable electronics, photo-detectors, nano-electronics, internet-connected clothing, and water desalination are just a few of the projects in which scientists are putting this material to work. In a world on the verge of the ‘internet of things’, it seems kismet that a material like graphene be an integral part of society’s transformation.
Nevertheless, there has always been that pesky concept of viable financial commercialization that stands in the way of widespread implementation. Steel, for example, was around for thousands of years before Henry Bessemer made it so economical that we completely rebuilt cities with it. Aluminum was so expensive that it was a luxury used in things like jewelry before the Hall-Heroult process allowed it to become a ubiquitous component of consumer goods. Seriously, have you ever given your spouse aluminum earrings for V-Day? If you’re still married, then probably not. These materials reminds us that two things must usually be satisfied before commercial implementation of a new miracle material can occur: identifiable industrial applications and low-cost, time-efficient production methods. In the case of graphene, the latter has clearly been the choke point. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a decade after graphene was first isolated it has only found its way onto store shelves as a component in tennis rackets. Don’t get me wrong, I like tennis as much as the next McEnroe, but given what we know about graphene I would say it isn’t living up to its full potential. I don’t want to be too judgmental though. Throughout history, commercial implementation of miracle materials has generally proved to be a tricky business.
When Geim and Novoselov first isolated graphene, they did so by using scotch tape to rip shreds of it from larger blocks of graphite. This small-scale, cost-efficient extraction method has been reused with great success in labs across the world in order to experiment with potential applications for graphene, but this low-tech, mechanical process is clearly nowhere near efficient enough to suffice as an industrial production method.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory is currently conducting experiments with one novel and promising large-scale fabrication method known as chemical vapor deposition (CVD), yielding graphene-polymer composites as well as graphene-based fibers. Why are composites and fibers so important? In most practical applications like interconnected wearable electronics or embedded smart-home devices, a layer of graphene can be integrated with layers of another commonly used textile fibers like cotton to provide truly invisible electronic/internet-enabled functionality in a wide array of products. Look in your closet, go ahead you tech-enthused fashonista. Imagine everything in there, as they currently appear, as an interconnected device capable of performing a wide array of functions now possible only on your smartphone. CVD may be a way for that to become a reality. In fact, the CVD method is picking up steam in the graphene community – recently, an international team of experts from Universities in England, Lisbon, Portugal and Belgium created the first electronic textile with graphene using CVD.
Another promising method of large-scale graphene production is being tested at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where researchers are using a 3D printing technique called “direct ink writing” to create graphene aerogel micro-structures. Utilizing 3D printing allows for manufacturers to construct complex graphene architectures on an extremely small scale with relative ease. This also allows manufacturers to tailor the properties of the final product based on the unique needs of each application. As opposed to CVD, direct ink writing may be more useful for mass production of next generation batteries, sensors and other nano-electronics due to the highly complex structures needed to improve functionality. 3D printing has also been used to create a graphene-based antenna, suitable for radio frequency identification (RFID), which may possibly be commercially available within the next year.
The scientific community’s interest in graphene coupled with the recent leaps in progress toward commerciality tends to suggest that this miracle material won’t fall by the wayside like so many others before it. Instead, it is more likely that graphene-based products will be entering our lives soon enough, however the scale of implementation across industries is anyone’s guess. At most, graphene will be this century’s plastic – a cheap, ubiquitous, transformative material in every industry imaginable, only with far greater implications in terms of functionality.
For now, let’s leave out the unknown and potentially harmful effects graphene oxide (a kind of “liquid smoke” used for graphene 3D printing) may have if it finds its way into the human body. Instead, lets just focus on what happens if everything goes right: graphene is the catalyzing miracle material we’ve been waiting for in a society on the brink of the ‘internet of things,’ low-cost, high-volume production methods become the norm, and every conceivable industry gets in on the gold rush. If mastering the elements and crafting tools defines us as a species, how would and graphene-infused world define us in the coming generations? Would mastering this material be as transformative to humankind as much as mastering other materials have been in the past?
Conquering stone and fire brought humans out of the dark and equipped us with the know-how and will to dominate more physically-gifted animals, catapulting us to the top of the food chain. Woodworking stripped much of Europe and America of their forests but allowed people to build innumerable tools (including weapons) and seafaring vessels to explore the planet. Iron and steel first encouraged societies to aspire to deadlier forms of hand-to-hand combat, and later provided a means to construct the railroads that would put people at opposite ends of a continent within a train ticket’s grasp. Unleashing the muscle of coal, oil and electricity birthed a new industrial way of city-life, but also created a sentiment of greed amongst people ever hungry for power in a world of finite resources, susceptible to environmental disaster. Finally, silicon computer chips shaped a new frontier of exploration for humanity, slowly transitioning people from a life lived in the physical world to a life lived largely in a digital one.
If the path of our future is laden with graphene (or any other similar material), the main consequence we must take into consideration is the double-edged sword of integrated, invisible, ubiquitous communication. For all intents and purposes, the digital world is still a fairly separate place than our physical one. However, graphene has the potential to allow us to connect to and with everything. Really, everything around us – clothing, furniture, appliances, even the floors, walls and ceilings in our homes.
While the traditional anthropological view suggests that crafting and using tools emerged as a product of the natural growth of our brains, many believe that the crafting and using of tools actively encouraged our evolution, and may have even guided it in a way. If our physical world truly merges with the digital one we’ve crafted, there may be a very real transformation of those two worlds as well as humanity’s social, behavioral and physical evolution. What that will be I dare not speculate without a half-full whiskey double in front of me. Maybe it’s because I’m just as reticent as I am optimistic. But for what it’s worth, I truly do think we’ll be alright in the long run. We will transform again, and in the name of progress, we will prevail. It’s what we do.