Once, the center of hi-tech development was called Silicon Valley. But silicon is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as carbon emerges as the new super-material, with derivatives such as carbon nano-tubes and graphene moving to center-stage.
Graphene, made of single-atom-thick sheets of carbon, has some amazing properties; it is strong, highly conductive, flexible, and transparent.
Now graphene is making its appearance – and slashing costs – in a range of industries from flexible computer displays to unbreakable solar cells; in the exploding science of robotics, and, most impressively, in manufacturing and construction, where its super-strong properties come to the fore. And that’s just the start.
The graphene sheets are bonded into mats to make a bulk material, now being deployed in aircraft, in new light-weight electric vehicles, and even in construction. “It’s like a science-fiction material that can be manufactured inexpensively and used almost everywhere to replace existing expensive or heavy materials,” says New Scientist journalist Ivan Kantey. “This really is the start of a new age of manufacturing.”
The success of graphene has certainly changed the world for Houston’s Rice University, where the material was refined for commercialization. It has brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the institution, through patents and partnerships, as well as making multi-millionaires of the key researchers behind the process.
Graphene’s rise will spell yet more trouble for the already-embattled steel industry, under pressure because of its polluting processes. “There’s little doubt that graphene, and a host of other new materials in development, will steadily replace steel in virtually every manufacturing process you can imagine,” said Angelo Bartolli, professor of Industrial Chemistry at MIT.