Here’s a piece published in last Saturday’s Guardian. I see little has changed in Comment is Free, i.e “A worthless uninformed negative article. You don't know what you are talking about. Why do you get paid for writing rubbish like this?” One even figured that the article is “anti-science.” Another decides that, because he feels steel-making is still not really a science (tell that to those now doing first-principles calculations on metal alloys), the whole article is invalidated. But this is par for the course. Back in the real world, Laurence Eaves rightly points out that his recent articles in Science and Nature Nanotech with Geim and Novoselov show that there’s hope of a solution to the zero-band-gap problem. Whether it’s be economical to make microprocessors this way is a question still far off, but I agree that there’s reason for some optimism. If carbon nanotubes are any guide, however, it’s going to be a long and difficult road. Some apparently regard it as treasonous to say so, but I'm pretty sure that Andre Geim, for one, would prefer to get on with the hard work without the burden of unreasonable expectation on their shoulders. And I know that the folks at IBM are keeping those expectations very modest and cautious when it comes to graphene.
Wonder materials are a peculiarly modern dream. Until the nineteenth century we had to rely almost entirely on nature for the fabrics from which we built our world. Not until the 1850s was steel-making a science, and the advent of the first synthetic polymers – celluloid and vulcanised rubber – around the same time, followed later by bakelite, ushered in the era of synthetic materials. As The Man in the White Suit (1951) showed, there were mixed feelings about this mastery of manmade materials: the ads might promise strength and durability, but the economy relies on replacement. When, four years later, synthetic diamond was announced by General Electric, some felt that nature had been usurped.
Yet the ‘miracle material’ can still grab headlines and conjure up utopian visions, as graphene reveals. This ultra-tough, ultra-thin form of carbon, just one atom thick and made of sheets of carbon atoms linked chicken-wire fashion into arrays of hexagons, has been sold as the next big thing: the future of electronics and touch-screens, a flexible fabric for smart clothing and the electrodes of energy-storage devices. It’s a British discovery (well, sort of), and this time we’re not going to display our habitual dilatoriness when it comes to turning bright ideas into lucrative industries. George Osborne has announced £22m funding for commercialising graphene, the isolation of which won the 2010 Nobel prize in physics for two physicists at the University of Manchester.
It would be madness to carp about that. But let’s keep it in perspective: this investment will be a drop in the ocean if a pan-European graphene project currently bidding for a €1 bn pot from the European Union, to be decided early in 2013, is successful. All the same, it’s serious money, and those backing graphene have got a lot to live up to.
It’s not obvious that they will. With an illustrious history of materials innovation, Britain is well placed to put this carbon gossamer to work – not least, Cambridge boasts world-leading specialists in the technology of flexible, polymer-based electronics and display screens, one of the areas in which graphene looks most likely to make a mark. But overseas giants such as Samsung and Nokia are already staking out that territory, and China is making inroads too.
Perhaps more to the point, graphene might not be all it is talked up to be. No matter how hard the Manchester duo Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov stress that the main attraction so far is the remarkable physics of the substance and not its potential uses, accusations of hype have been flung at those touting this wonder material. The idea that all our microchips will soon be based on carbon rather than silicon circuits looks particularly dodgy, since it remains all but impossible to switch a graphene transistor (the central component of integrated circuits) fully off. They leak, leading one expert to call graphene “an extremely bad material that an electronics designer would not touch with a ten-foot pole”. Even optimists don’t forecast the graphene computer any time soon.
But here graphene is perhaps a victim of its own success: it’s such strange, interesting stuff that there’s almost a collective cultural wish to believe it can do anything. That’s the curse of the ‘miracle material’, and we have plastics to blame for it.
For plastics were the first of these protean substances. Before that, materials tended to have specific, specialized uses, their flaws all too evident. Steel was strong but heavy, stone hard but brittle. Leather and wood rotted. But plastics? Stronger than steel, hard, soft, eternal, biodegradable, insulating, conductive, sticky, non-stick, they tethered oil rigs and carried shopping. They got us used to the idea that a single fabric can be all things to all people. As a result, a new material is expected to multi-task. High-temperature superconductors, which nabbed a Nobel in 1987, would give us maglev trains and loss-free power lines. Carbon nanotubes (a sort of tubular graphene discovered in 1991) would anchor a Space Elevator and transform microelecronics. These things haven’t materialized, partly because it is really, really hard to secure a mass market overnight for high-tech, expensive new materials, especially when that means displacing older, established materials. They are instead finding their own limited niche. Graphene will do too. But miracle materials? They don’t really exist.