Without the unique chemical bonding properties of carbon, life--including us--couldn't exist. These same properties explain why carbon's possible combinations with only a few other simple atoms, including hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur, seem nearly infinite, giving rise to the fields of organic chemistry, biochemistry and biotechnology, and supplying 85% of the world's current energy needs. But in spite of that remarkable complexity, until recently we thought that pure carbon only appeared in a couple of forms, the graphite and diamonds we've known about for ages, plus the "fullerenes": Buckyballs and Buckytubes (also known as carbon nanotubes) that were discovered in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now there seems to be another form, graphene, with some very interesting properties, including perhaps some nifty energy-saving ones.
I'm embarrassed to say I first read about this in the Economist last week, but a little Googling turned up many other references. It was apparently discovered in 2004, which is an eye-blink ago in science but eons in Web terms. How does anyone stay abreast of everything that's happening?
Initial thoughts about graphene seem to be focused on its potential as a sort of room-temperature superconductor, apparently passing along electric currents at relativistic velocities. This may have exciting applications in electronics, as well as for reducing the losses associated with long-distance power transmission. But it is early days. After more than a decade of research graphene's cousin, carbon nanotubes, is showing promise, among other things as a low-cost, low-weight storage medium for hydrogen for use in cars and other applications. They may also have a role in helping sequester carbon dioxide and thus keeping it out of the atmosphere, where it warms us up. They could also be the key to creating cables with enough tensile strength to build a "space elevator," which would enable us to put things--and people--in earth orbit without using rockets.
If the properties and versatility of graphene turn out to be anything like the fullerenes, it's a reasonable bet that some very interesting and unexpected possibilities will emerge. It's at least something else to track.
Hexapentas for space elevator future
Space elevators and tethers (elevator in space not connected to ground) would open up the entire solar system. Fascinating possibilities.
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