Observers have been waiting for carbon nanotubes, buckyballs, and graphene to transform the world for quite some time, and the wait has been longer than they expected. Enthusiasts for this new miracle material had all but vanished. Is this warranted? Where does the state of innovation in various forms of carbon, that could yield ultra-strong, ultra-light materials and superfast computing really stand?
CNET had an article just last month about the multiple disruptions that the various allotopes of carbon are about to make. That is quite exciting, except that CNET also had a similar article in 2003. Similarly, Ray Kurzweil extolled carbon nanotubes as a successor to silicon quite heavily in 1999, but not quite as much now, even though that supposed transition would be much closer to the present. This does not mean that Kurzweil's estimation was in error, but rather that the technology was unexpectedly stagnant during the early 2000s. So let us examine why there was such an interruption, and whether progress has since resumed.
I wrote in 2009 about how we had undergone a multi-year nanotech winter, and how we were emerging from it in 2009. As anticipated, carbon nanotubes are now finally lowering in price, and being produced at a scale that could start making an impact. Sure enough, activity began to stir right as I predicted, and the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to research in graphene. Just like CNETs article, Wired also has an article about the diverse applications that graphene could revolutionize. Combining the two articles, we can summarize the core possibilities of carbon allotopes as follows :
Ultra-dense computing and storage : Graphene transistors smaller than 1 nanometer have been demonstrated. Carbon allotopes could keep the exponential doubling of both computing and storage capacity going well into the 2030s.
Carbon Fiber Vehicles : This lightweight, ultrastrong material can save vast amounts of fuel by reducing the weight of cars and aeroplanes. While premium products such as the $6000 Trek Madone bicycles are already made from carbon fiber, greater volume is reducing prices and will soon make the average car much ligher than it is today, increasing fuel efficiency and reducing traffic fatalities.
Energy Storage : Natural Gas is not only much cheaper than oil per unit of energy (oil would have to drop to about $30 to match current NG prices), but the supply of NG is more evenly distributed across the world than the oil supply. The US alone has an enormous reserve of natural gas that could ensure total energy independence. The main problem with NG is storage, which is the primary reason oil displacement is not happening rapidly. But microporous carbon can effectively act as a sponge for natural gas, enabling safe and easy transport. This could potentially change the entire energy map.
There are other applications beyond these core three, but suffice it to say, the allotopes of carbon can perform a greater variety of functions than any other material available to us today. Watch for indications of carbon allotopes popping up in the strangest of places, and know that each emergence drives the cost down ever lower.