Have you heard the one about the actor who was told he was an overnight success? He looked at the reporter, puzzled, and asked, "Which night was it?"
Any sudden fad or success story is usually the culmination of months or years of hard work and—let's face it—luck. While you might not have heard of the "wonder material" that is graphene until recent months, it has been fighting for the limelight for years. Check out its lifeline:
2002: Graphene is discovered when a creative physics professor and his students pull tiny shavings of graphite (pencil lead) off some discarded Scotch tape and look at it under a microscope.
2004: Its principal inventor demonstrates that the material can be used in place of silicon or copper to conduct electricity.
2010: The material wins its inventors the Nobel Prize in physics.
2014: The New Yorker says graphene "may be the most remarkable substance ever recorded," but called much of its celebration "hype," saying the product is still too expensive and untamed to be useful.
2015: Graphene is in tests for night vision, artificial muscles, search and rescue robots, bullet-proof gear, super-efficient electric cars, cancer treatments, biosensors to look for toxins in food and medicine, and countless other applications.
Notice I didn't say that in 2015, "graphene is in every cell phone in America," or even that the "first-ever graphene product is released to the public." Although the miracle material is celebrated at every turn, it still hasn't been absolutely mastered. Graphene is sort of like the John Belushi of tech; the very thing that makes it powerful and awe-inspiring also makes it a mess to work with.
To understand graphene's usefulness, we need to look at something you probably regularly ignore, but is making the world run: silicon.
Silicon is practically synonymous with "artificial" these days, but it is actually as elemental as it gets ... literally. It's the second most abundant element on the planet, after oxygen. And it is critical to the modern world because it is also an impressive semiconductor—that means it conducts electricity and does so best when it is heated up. Send some heat and electricity to it (via a start button, for example), and it roars to life. This is partly due to what is called the "field effect," where the electricity can pass through the silicon relatively unabated, compared with other conductive materials like metal.
According to the New Yorker, a Columbia University scientist showed that graphene could shoot electricity through its surface at a rate of up to 250 times as fast as silicon. And according to an interview that the co-inventor and foremost graphene expert in the world, Andre Geim, gave to CNN, it is 1,000 times as quick as copper at transmitting energy. Needless to say, it's pretty much the fastest conductor we could possibly imagine. But it is also incredibly hard to control that flood of electricity once it is sent sailing over graphene. That's what engineers have been working at, at breakneck speed, since the material started making headlines.
Graphene is also tiny—it is only one atom thick, a millionth as thin as a human hair. It is even stronger than steel. Because it's only one atom thick, it is incredibly hard to destroy, because how would you break it down any further? The material is already only one atom thick. Anything smaller would be an elementary particle. According to research published in the journal Science, graphene is the thinnest known material in the universe, and the strongest ever tested. According to research published in the journal Science in 2014, it can absorb 10 times as much energy as steel can, before cracking.
Finally, graphene is translucent, so it is ideal for applications that use screens and lenses. Hi, cell phones, meet your new best friend.
If you look at graphene under a microscope, it looks relatively unimpressive. Spread like a lattice (read: two-dimensional honeycomb) made of carbon, the material is barely there, which is what makes it so extraordinary. It is difficult to image that such a tiny, insignificant material could change the world. But that has been the great surprise of the 21st century. In 1912, we bragged about building the largest ship. Today, we brag about making the smallest chip.
But until someone cracks the control code, graphene will keep being its renegade self—conducting at incredible speeds, but being very difficult to turn on and off the way superconductors must in order to be useful. As a result, the entire recent batch of cutting-edge computer models that don't use silicon have also not contained graphene. Carbon-based materials are already changing the face of electronics, but would likely be immediately replaced by graphene if it is ever fully workable. Perhaps this new batch of computer tech, then, would go the way of the LaserDisc.
And that day is almost surely on its way. Until it gets here, countless physicists, chemists, engineers, and shareholders will be putting in long hours, trying to get the first consumer graphene-based product on the market. The smallest material could be the biggest discovery of our century.
Photo: Hafiz Issadeen | Flickr