It’s been a tough week for carbon. First Bayer (best known for making quite a wide range of drugs and diagnostics) announced that their materials science subgroup was shuttering its carbon nanotube research project. And then a Czech/Singapore research team published an article about the unsung difficulties of making graphene (RSC writeup and summary here), essentially saying “yeah, this common way of making graphene actually leaves you with a whole mess of unpredictable side products and defects”. Not something you want in an electronics-grade material.
Carbon nanotubes and graphene are two sides of the same coin, in which a specific bonding pattern in carbon lends it semiconducting and conducting properties. Where graphene tends to be thin, flat, large(ish) sheets of conductive carbon, the nanotubes can be thought of like cylinders made by rolling up those sheets. They’re pretty cool materials, with all sorts of promise for cheap, flexible, transparent electronic applications. Carbon, after all, is much cheaper than a lot of the noble metals that get used as electrodes.
Folks have been heralding the Coming of Nanotubes for years now. It’s one of those techs that perpetually seems 10 years away. Carbon nanotubes have been imagined in all sorts of applications (hell, the topic even has its own wiki), from continued electronic miniaturization, to medical diagnostics and delivery systems, to mechanical reinforcements. At the just-crazy-enough-to-maybe-work end of the spectrum, carbon nanotubes have been proposed as a material potentially strong enough for an eventual space elevator. And the discovery graphene, of course, won the Physics Nobel a few years back, which I was a bit skeptical about.
So the fact that more folks, especially ones as established as Bayer, are coming out and saying they don’t know what to do with this stuff isn’t terribly comforting. But I’m not too worried for carbon. Graphene (and to a lesser extent carbon nanotubes) are new enough, and sexy enough, that they’ve still got a lot of money and research flowing to them. That buys a lot of good will. Put a little more cynically and colorfully by a friend of mine, “You could spit on a sheet of graphene and get 3 publications out of it.” So I’d say that graphene/spit composites are something we can all be excited to see within maybe 10 years.