Miracle materials do not exist
UNTIL the 19th century we had to rely almost entirely on nature for the fabrics from which we built our world. Not until the 1850s was steelmaking 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.
“Miracle materials” 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.
But graphene might not be all it is talked up to be. 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 graphene transistors fully off. They leak, leading one expert to call graphene a material “an electronics designer would not touch with a 10-ft 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.
Before plastics, materials tended to have specific, specialised uses, and their flaws were 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, each new material is expected to multitask.
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 microelectronics. These things haven’t materialised, partly because it is extremely hard to secure a mass market overnight for hi-tech, expensive new materials, especially when that means displacing older, established materials. They are instead finding their own limited niche. Graphene will do the same. But miracle materials? They don’t exist. — The Guardian, London