26 July, 2013 - 12:34 By News Desk

The future is made of Carbon

I have blogged quite often about the potential for graphene. It is a wonderful new material, and best of all is a British discovery.

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal mesh like chicken wire. It is hard to make in large quantity so is still expensive, but already its mechanical, electrical and chemical properties have been thoroughly measured. It impresses across the board.

As a futurist, it is my day job to look ahead of current engineering difficulties and assume that those will be solved by smart engineers. Where markets are potentially large, they almost always are. So I see a future where graphene will become easy and cheap to make. If that happens, it will change many things about the world.

First of all, graphene has enormous strength compared to conventional materials such as steel. That will give it uses in large scale construction, but will also allow new designs for smaller objects, too.

It will mean that devices can be thinner and lighter, for example. It is also a superb conductor and that will open many doors in engineering where electrical resistance is a big issue. When it is cheap, we will be able to make cheap cables to conduct electricity from far away solar farms.

The strong currents it can carry through even fine cores will make it easier to make strong electromagnets and electrical motors. That could bring forwards the age of levitating cars. Initially, they would need metal road surfaces to levitate over, but if graphene becomes very cheap, a few graphene coils in the road surface here and there might do the job without metal. We could even see graphene skate board parks for levitating skateboards like we saw on Back to the Future.

Graphene apparently also allows water to pass through but not other impurities. That will enable water purifiers and better desalination plants. I even imagined a graphene drinking straw that could be used in emergency relief projects where water contamination often risks lives. http://nvireuk.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/graphene-drinking-straw/

Over Christmas, I had an idea that a bubble of graphene could be made that has a vacuum inside. One of the properties of graphene is that it was apparently impervious to gases. If so, then provided the shell was strong enough not to collapse, then the average density of a bubble would be low.

With a single graphene layer, a bubble with a vacuum inside would become lighter than helium if the bubbles were greater that 0.014mm across. Those are quite small spheres, so might well be strong enough to withstand atmospheric pressure.

Unfortunately, my maths wasn’t up to the job of doing all the calculations to check it properly, but it intuitively seemed feasible. So graphene foam could become a helium substitute. Helium is one of the few elements we are in real danger of running short of, because we waste it in party balloons and when it escapes it eventually leaves the atmosphere. There isn’t a great deal of it near to hand.

If we can make graphene foam cheaply that would make it possible to make foam balloons that could stay high in the atmosphere for ages, providing research, surveillance and comms platforms, even astronomy.

I since learned that other groups have also come up with the idea of carbon foam and it is starting to make an impact in stem cell research, where it is ideal for making a growth platform the stem cells: http://lyranara.me/2013/07/20/medical-application-of-graphene-foam-in-neural-stem-cell-therapy/

It is also good fun to speculate what other new forms of carbon might be produced. Could we make carbon chainmail for example, with interlocking carbon rings? If so, that might give even better strength than graphene sheets, allow multiple and denser layers to be interlocked to create extremely strong and lightweight carbon armour, like Tolkien’s mythril perhaps. Many roles need protective clothing, but achieving that with light weight would be a big bonus.

I also speculated about making a material that has carbon atoms arranged in a cubic array. A material called cubic carbon does already exists, but it only has occasional cubes with atoms in a non cubic array supporting them. It may one day be possible to make a proper cubic array. I think it will be in the far future because what I am thinking of would have bonds using all six electrons, not just the outer four.

There is some proof of principle in existence that inner electrons can be made to take part in bonding. Each node in a cubic array would have six neighbours, so that would work perfectly if we can do it. Intuitively, cubic carbon ought to have immense hardness and strength. Whether used to improve drills or make sharper knives, hardness is useful.

More recently, I had a lot of fun designing a wide range of carbon weapons, carbon candyfloss, and especially carbon tape. A roll of simple graphene tape could potentially be the basis for a range of darts, swords, even bows, a veritable armoury from just a roll of tape.

Those are just my imagination, and I’m almost finished writing a science fiction book based on an all-carbon superhero. There are very many other engineers out there, and they all have imaginations, too. I can be certain that I have only seen a tiny proportion of what may be possible.

The potential for carbon materials is vast. Graphene was a British discovery and won’t be the last form of carbon. Let’s make sure we make the most of the growing markets. We are a carbon based life form. In the future a great deal of our lifestyles could be based on carbon, too.



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