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Borophene, Graphene, Super Materials, and the Recalcitrance of Scientific Revolution

For many technological advances, the productivity arrives when nearly everyone has forgotten it had been discovered at all.

The enormous amount of work done on researching and testing graphene is opening up a whole industry of potential “super-materials”. The allure of these super-materials are their nano-potentialities within electronics like quantum computers, wearables and sensors.

The Promise and the Undertaking

Graphene captured the imagination of scientists and industrialists because testing showed it to be flexible, strong and conductive. In fact, in 2004, when graphene was first discovered, most scientists did not believe it was feasible to isolate a stable, two-dimensional material. But, over time, Andre Geim and colleagues continued to test the thin material until it showed its amazing scope.

As I detailed in an article recently, currently graphene is being used in innovative ways like powering bicycles in Barcelona and being embedded into the fabric of clothes. However, its full-scale adoption has been slow, even though most chemists still agree on its ultimate promise.

And that promise is essentially a 2D material that takes us into the next generation of energy and technological capacity. As proof of that Asimovian dream, the U.K. Intellectual Property Office published a report detailing the worldwide proliferation of graphene-related patents, from 3,018 in 2011 to 8,416 at the beginning of 2013. The patents suggest a wide array of applications that include eternal batteries, improved solar cells, and racing-speed fast microcomputers.

In fact, Samsung holds the highest number of graphene-based patents and Rice University holds the fourth most number of patents. The university has sold a graphene-embedded paint where the conductivity keeps the ice of helicopter blades.

Moore’s Law is a game of inches

The semiconductor industry was especially interested in graphene as it was trying to keep up with the march of Moore’s Law. Geim had described the transfer of electronic information whipping across the surface of graphene and this news tantalized researchers at Intel and IBM. However, silicon’s ability to create binary code – to turn on and off – has not been possible with graphene.

If graphene cannot be “turned off,” it will waste too much power and never be able to be used in any form of commercial application making its flexibility and super-conductivity all but a talking point and not anything that might be able to materialize. However, introducing a band gap is not a challenge for manufacturers, so it might be that the real issue is incorporating graphene into the systems and manufacturing processes and hubs we have already built.

To some, the scope of the story on graphene is looking similar to tale of nano-tubes. At Rice University, a whole wing of the campus is devoted to the development of nano-tubes – or molecules of carbon atoms arranged in a tube – but even after scientists from the University won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, nano-tubes have yet to make microelectronic speeds any faster, even with generous donations from I.B.M.

The point here is that true technological changes arrives incrementally. In the impatient spheres of our daily lives, we expect microwave results and scientific breakthroughs are costly and can take decades to arrive even after the breakthrough has been made and prizes handed out.

In short, for many technological advances, the productivity arrives when nearly everyone has forgotten it had been discovered at all.

Borophene Dreams

So, as some may have seen recently, a new super material has been discovered: borophene. Similar to graphene, borophene is a single later of boron atoms forming metallic crystalline structures. Here is a snippet from the MIT Technology Review article describing its discovery as the next great “wonder material”:

“Electrochemists think borophene could become the anode material in a new generation of more powerful lithium-ion batteries. Chemists are entranced by its catalytic capabilities… borophene’s single-layer structure, and this adsorption property, combined with the huge surface area of atomic layers, makes borophene a promising material for hydrogen storage. Theoretical studies suggest borophene could store over 15% of its weight in hydrogen, significantly outperforming other materials.”

The writing bears a similar description to the discovery of graphene – scientists in a swoon and the proliferation of theoretical studies. And rightly so, journalists and scientists want to deliver the good news. Except, after the discovery phase comes the unsexy part where investment dollars and scientific tinkering must make it hold up under the intense pressure of its own hype and the stress of our industrial processes.

So, it is right to get excited about scientific breakthroughs in engineering and even science, but it might be prudent to withhold judgment on when to deem it a failure or even a breakthrough at all.

I’ve long said we are under-utilizing nuclear energy. This shouldn’t be controversial; nuclear has something for everyone.