Super-strong material renews faith in technological advancement – by Scott Barlow (Globe and Mail – December 20, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

In the past 25 years, three market bubbles, a once-in-a-generation financial crisis and the rise of China have convinced many that the long-feared decline of Western civilization is fully under way.

But miraculous innovations like graphene – a new material with the potential to transform the world similar to the advances in plastics during the years following the Second World War – make me inclined towards a more optimistic view.

Graphene is a one-atom-thick layer of graphite that can be grown like crystals. Its properties and potential applications are scarcely believable. Graphene was declared the strongest substance ever tested by Columbia University engineers, or about 350 times stronger than the Kevlar used to make bulletproof vests. It must be heavy, though, right? Not at all, they say. “It is often said that a single sheet of graphene [being only one atom thick], sufficient in size enough to cover a whole football field, would weigh under one single gram.”

The most immediate applications of graphene are in powerful semiconductors – it’s literally a million times better than copper at conducting electricity. But the possibilities extend everywhere – bicycle tires, batteries, water desalinization, solar power cells, medical diagnostics, just to name a few.

Before we get too excited, it should be noted that the production of graphene is laborious and expensive. We could see it in industrial use within a decade, though it’s still in the experimental phase. As with all emerging technologies, it’s possible that graphene may never be economically feasible for widespread use – but that’s not the point. If graphene is not the solution, some other substance will be.

London School of Economics scholar Carlota Perez would no doubt approve. For Ms. Perez, society is not in decline, but in a transition stage that has occurred during all previous eras of technological expansion.

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