Monday, August 26, 2013

Just One Word

It’s easy to get down on the future what with our tepid economic growth, the seemingly endless upheaval and violence in the Middle East, and the fact that today everyone in America is discussing something called “twerking.” But if you squint hard enough you can still find rays of hope.

One such ray is that “Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” the first installment in the latest teen book series to be turned into a move franchise, bombed at the box office.

Even more heartening is the excitement over the Graphene Gold Rush:

A substance 200 times stronger than steel yet as thin as an atom has ignited a global scientific gold rush, sending companies and universities racing to understand, patent and profit from the skinnier, more glamorous cousin of ordinary pencil lead.

The material is graphene, and to demonstrate its potential, Andrea Ferrari recently picked up a sheet of clear plastic, flexed it and then tapped invisible keys, triggering tinkly musical notes.

The keyboard made at Dr. Ferrari's University of Cambridge lab was printed with a circuit of graphene, which is so pliable that scientists predict it will fulfill dreams of flexible phones and electronic newspapers that can fold into a pocket.

It is the thinnest material known. But it is exceedingly strong, light and flexible. It is exceptional at conducting electricity and heat, and at absorbing and emitting light.

Scientists isolated graphene just a decade ago, but some companies are already building it into products: Head introduced a graphene-infused tennis racket this year. Apple Inc., Saab and Lockheed Martin Corp. have recently sought or received patents to use graphene.

"Graphene is the same sort of material, like steel or plastic or silicon that can really change society," says Dr. Ferrari, who leads a band of about 40 graphene researchers at Cambridge.

A good deal of concern about the prospects for future economic growth revolves around the belief that we’ve run out of technological game changers. In the past, such game changers have resulted in revolutionary changes in industry, transportation, energy, and information that have propelled growth. It still remains to be seen whether graphene will one day join the ranks of steel, plastic, or silicone and ignite similar changes. But the fact that it’s even being discussed in the same breath is encouraging.