I’ve written before about the history of steel, how it’s been around for millennia, but was of limited use to civilization as a whole until the details of its manufacture were published. It’s impossible to overstate what a pivotal moment in human history the publication of steel was: without abundant, cheep steel manufacturing, we would have never had the Industrial Revolution, the beginning of the modern age.
Since then, there’s only been one technology that’s rivaled steel in its revolutionary influence on the entirety of modern society: the transistor. And again, the more abundantly and cheaply people have been able to manufacture them, the greater their value to society grows. We even have a famous principle about the mathematics of it.
Well here’s the amazing thing: we might be right on the verge of it happening again.
You’ve probably heard of graphene by now: a material comprised of a single layer of graphite, one atom thick. The more that scientists work on it, the more amazing potential they discover: it’s stronger than steel, one of the best room-temperature conductors known, and with the right modifications it can be a more efficient semiconductor than modern computing materials. Roll a layer of graphene up into a cylinder and you get carbon nanotubes, which are a whole world of interesting new properties.
Unfortunately, all of those amazing things graphene can potentially do are still essentially stuck in the world of the purely theoretical, because it’s horribly difficult to produce the stuff in any quantity.
That may be about to change.
A few months ago, Shou-En Zhu, a PhD student studying in the Netherlands, came up with a new method to produce graphene. Frustrated with the low quality and expense of current production techniques, he developed his own graphene-manufacturing furnace, for a cost of approximately 20,000 euros. It uses simple, common materials such as methane, argon, and tinfoil-like sheets of copper to produce large, high-quality graphene sheets. In this TEDx talk, Zhu describes how he did it, and how he expects that within a few years, his new process should be able to reduce the current cost of graphene manufacture by a factor of 1000. (To put this in perspective, Henry Bessemer’s steelmaking furnace, the technology that jumpstarted the Industrial Revolution, decreased the cost of steel by approximately a factor of 6.)
If Zhu’s furnace can be scaled up to industrial mass-production levels the way he claims, it make it feasible for current ideas about graphene technology to be tested out, experimented on and refined, but that’s not the truly cool thing about it. No, what makes this really interesting is when you realize that if graphene becomes that inexpensive, any researcher who wants to play around with it will be able to afford the stuff out-of-pocket! Colleges and high schools will be able to buy graphene for their students to experiment with in chemistry classes. If you’re trying something and it doesn’t work, or you screw it up, that’s no big deal; it’s cheap! You can just get more!
That’s exactly the type of fertile environment in which ideas that change everything are born, and it can happen incredibly fast. If this technology pans out, Zhu will deserve to be mentioned in the same company as Henry Ford, the man who didn’t invent the automobile, but did something equally significant by figuring out how to make it mass-producible. If I were a guy like Elon Musk, I’d track Zhu down with a job offer, and just about let him write his own contract if necessary.
And here’s the interesting thing. Assuming, of course, that his invention is not completely fraudulent, (which I find very unlikely,) even if it doesn’t quite work as advertised and enable mass production of graphene, that doesn’t really matter. It’s still a breakthrough, a solid step forward that someone else can build on, working on improving the techniques involved until they find something that does scale up well. A new Industrial Revolution is coming, and it’s going to arrive sooner rather than later.
This is a very exciting time to be alive.