Once in a lifetime, a material comes along that might just change the world. In our great-grandfather’s lifetime, it was steel. For us, it might just be graphene.
That’s because graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, 20 times stronger than diamonds and, at the same time, it might be the lightest material in the world.
In other words, if steel was Superman then graphene is Batman, Captain America and the Lone Ranger all in one.
But what is graphene? It’s the lead in your pencil, with a twist.
Now, no one in his or her right mind would expect the lead in your pencil to kick-start a technological revolution. No one except Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two Russian-born scientists, who earned a Nobel Prize in 2010 by peeling a pencil apart like a banana, and creating the beginnings of a material that might just change the world.
You see, graphene is basically a genetically modified carbon. Under a microscope it looks like chicken wire that is so bendable, flexible and transparent that you can stretch a tiny amount of it over a whole football field.
Not only that, but it conducts heat and electricity so well that it converts light into electricity, electricity into light and fully charges a cellphone in seconds. In addition, graphene-enhanced lithium ion batteries can be used to dramatically increase the distance you can travel in an electrically powered vehicle and negate dependence on oil.
It also does such a good job in water filtration systems it might just someday take all of the salt out of ocean water and make it OK for us to drink, inexpensively.
Plus it could pave the way for putting bionic devices in living tissues that can be connected directly to neurons so people with spinal injuries can relearn how to use their limbs.
Does that sound too miraculous? Maybe so, and yet there’s more.
Graphene can be mixed with the materials in clothing and give you solar-heated jackets, pants or shirts. Plus you can mix it with house paint and give the paint on your house solar-powered attributes.
But maybe most important is that it can be used to clean industrial pollutants and even radioactivity. Researchers have found that, by mixing graphene and strands of DNA with fluorescent molecules, it can be used to diagnose diseases.
As with everything, there’s a down side and graphene’s downside is that, since it’s the smallest and thinnest atom on the periodic table, it also might be the toughest to handle.
Because of that, large-scale graphene production is difficult and expensive at the moment. But someone will solve that problem.
Then again, that will only happen with the proper focus.
Like Daniel H. Pink, the host and co-executive producer of the 2014–15 National Geographic Channel social science TV series said: “Entrepreneurs are moving from a world of problem-solving to a world of problem-finding. The very best ones are able to uncover problems people didn't realize that they had.”
We need to start solving problems instead of creating more.