What will the future world be built from? Paul Gailey asked in my #AskAFuturist thread a slightly more technical question: “When will borophene rule if graphene didn’t?” I’m going to expand that out a little. And explain what those two things are along the way.
We name many of the ages of history based on the most advanced materials with which we understood how to work. There was the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, Iron Age etc. Later, we focused on forms of mechanical and later electronic sophistication: Machine Age, Atomic Age, Space Age. Right now you could argue we’re in the Information Age. So what’s next?
Perhaps we might call it the ‘Quantum Age’? In this time we expand our existing comprehension of the world on a sub-atomic scale, and find new applications for this knowledge.
When people hear the word ‘quantum’ they often think of quantum computing. This field naturally gets a lot of attention, given the importance of computers in our world. The possibility of a new style of computing that can calculate many possibilities in parallel rather than one after the other is certainly exciting. But our understanding of the very essence of the material world around us goes well beyond the potential for an upgrade in our processing power.
Go back to those early blacksmiths in the Iron Age. They didn’t really understand what was going on inside the materials they worked with. They just knew that the right combination of heat, materials, and working could produce metals with very different properties. Today, we are starting to understand those materials at the very deepest layers. We can see how the atomic glue that binds them together, works. We can watch the movement of electrons through them. The potential this opens up is enormous.
Part of this potential comes from the materials we can now make. Because we understand how the different components stick together, we can understand how to assemble these atomic building blocks in new ways. We can create materials with a wide variety of properties, both electrical and mechanical. This means tailored materials that are the perfect solution to particular problems, whether that is increasing the life of a battery, preventing leaks from a pipe, or reinforcing the frame of a bicycle.
The most famous of the new materials, graphene, was discovered in Manchester. Researchers at the National Graphene Institute and the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre here continue to examine and exploit its properties. These are places where I have spent some time listening and learning.
Graphene is the wonder material people talk about: stronger, lighter and more conductive than just about anything else. But when it comes to working with it, and particularly producing it in useful forms at scale, we’re still in the early days.
Graphene isn’t the only material they are researching at the NGI though. One figure I heard in my time there is that they are looking at more than 1100 different 2D (those with a structure one atom thick) and advanced materials, including borophene. While graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms laid out in a hexagonal structure, borophene is a single layer of boron atoms. Its mechanical and electrical properties potentially exceed those of even graphene. But we have the same problems with producing it.
Borophene was only experimentally demonstrated in 2015, which means we have a long way to go before we understand how to produce it at scale and in useful forms. Though what has been learned from the production of graphene will likely help. The same is true of all the other materials and compounds being researched. They will all have a role to play in tomorrow’s world, but only when we learn how to make and use them at scale.
When will borophene rule?
This leads me to answering Paul’s original question and my version of it. Graphene and borophene both have important roles to play in tomorrow’s world. In our electronics and mechanics, clothes, computers, cars and bicycles. But realising their potential is taking time, and will take more time yet. Bear in mind that we are still finding ways to improve both the properties and the manufacturing of steel, something we have been working with for nearly 4,000 years. Mastering the production of graphene, borophene and other 2D materials might yet take decades, if not longer.
Neither of these wonder materials will dominate though. Nor will any of the thousands of other novel materials being researched. Because our sophistication means that we can choose the right material for each task, and increasingly if it doesn’t exist, invent a new one. Tomorrow’s world is built from an incredibly diverse array of materials. Some of them will be familiar, some of them we are yet to discover or invent.