The Future is Coming

Coruscant or the city of the future? (courtesy of Screen Themes)

Coruscant or the city of the future? (courtesy of Screen Themes)

This may seem obvious since we all know that each passing second brings the future one step closer. What I am referring to instead is that ideal vision of the future each of us experience at one time or another—the technological future.

Whether we dream about owning our own spaceship, long for the day when household chores are performed by robots or fancy a car that does the driving for us, we have all pondered what the future might bring and how advances in technology might improve our lives. And honestly, we have come a long way so far, even in the last twenty or thirty years. Take computers, for instance.

When I was eleven or twelve—somewhere in the neighborhood of 1983—I was the “big man on the block” because my dad bought me a Commodore 64 home computer. It had a whopping 64 kilobytes of RAM, 16-color graphics and an external drive with floppy disks the size of those old CD jewel cases. For the time, however, it was cutting edge. And despite having a number of useful functions, I used it primarily for one thing: gaming.

Maniac Mansion was fun while it lasted (courtesy of Lucasfilms)

Maniac Mansion was fun while it lasted (courtesy of Lucasfilms)

With titles like Maniac Mansion, Ultima, Winter Games, Legacy of the Ancients and Raid on Bungeling Bay, C64 games revolutionized laziness and produced thousands—maybe even millions—of sun-deprived and socially awkward nerds, myself included. Sure, the graphics were basic and the interface was simple—a number of my games were even text-only, which can be challenging—but it was great because there was nothing else like it… at least for a time.

Now—thirty years after I first popped that Leather Goddesses of Phobos floppy into my Commodore 64—I carry a computer small enough to fit in my pocket: my cell phone. RAM has gone through the roof, laptops and tablets are everywhere and Google even has Google Glass, a wearable computer with a head-mounted display that looks like eyeglasses. Thirty years and the entire face of computer technology changed dramatically.

Get ready, people, because it looks like computers and, more importantly, technology in general, is getting ready to evolve again, only at a much faster pace. And it is all because of a material created in 2010 by Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov, who incidentally won the Nobel Prize in Physics that year: graphene.

The future is coming, and this is the space-age material that is going to take us there at light speed.

The disk drive for the Commodore 64 (courtesy of NathanBeach)

The disk drive for the Commodore 64 (courtesy of NathanBeach)

I am not a science guy and apologize if this is confusing, but as I understand it, graphene is a two-dimensional, one-molecule-thick material formed of carbon atoms that are linked together in a hexagonal structure, much like a honeycomb. This makes it incredibly strong—supposedly a hundred times stronger than steel—and really, that’s only the beginning. Graphene is the thinnest, most flexible and most conductive substance ever “created.” And its implications for science and technology have me and millions of other people around the world wondering exactly when this major innovation will finally hit.

Trust me. It won’t be long.

The list of potential uses for graphene—as well as materials created in hybrid with the amazing substance—is exciting, to say the least. I did a little research and here are the “big ones” I found in no particular order:

  • Salt be gone. Lack of water is a huge problem for millions of people all over the world. Even those who live along the shore with an ocean of water before them cannot partake. Ingesting salt water can kill you, as we all know. The good news is that technology giant Lockheed Martin has plans to complete a prototype graphene water filter by the end of the year. The chicken-wire mesh of graphene filters even the smallest salt molecules, but can also be engineered to allow only water molecules to pass through it. And since graphene can be manufactured cheaply—carbon is everywhere—the cost would be minimal, too. Thirsty people everywhere could have filters and, more importantly, water. Just don’t tell anyone that the same technology could be used to distill vodka and other liquor much faster, would you?
  • I’ve got the power. Every time I engage in a discussion about energy and suggest more widespread use of solar power, someone inevitably points out that it is far too expensive to be a viable option. I did some checking and they’re right. Solar cells rely on some elements that are rare—including Tellurium, which has only two known deposits in the world—so creating them depletes the supply enough to continue driving up the price. Fortunately, graphene can be used to solve this problem because, as I mentioned, it’s made from carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the known universe and the 15th most abundant on Earth. And since researchers in Taiwan recently created a working phototransistor by combining graphene—which conducts electricity better than copper—with chlorophyll—the organic molecule plants use to convert sunlight into energy—everyone could have them eventually. Some even think graphene could be used in roofing materials and paint, meaning your house could one day power itself!
  • Out of batteries. Dead batteries suck. And batteries that die quickly are the worst of all. But a day without batteries—or at least batteries that won’t disappoint you—may be coming. And yes, it’s all because of graphene. Supercapacitors made with this technological wonder can power batteries that charge quickly and last much longer. Imagine charging your cell phone in five minutes or even five seconds, and having to recharge it less often. That alone would be a huge convenience for many of us. But just as these batteries could extend our laptop power for several days, they could also extend power for emergency medical equipment and, theoretically, save lives. And that is always worth the trouble, if you ask me.
  • Daddy, I want a supercomputer for Christmas. My Commodore 64 was nice, but it was nothing compared to today’s computers. And today’s computers will be nothing compared to those coming in the future. Many believe that graphene could replace silicon in computer chips, making computers as much as a hundred times faster. It also produces less heat and could make cooling fans obsolete in both desktops and laptops someday. Combine this with glass and other components made with graphene-based materials and you end up with something I long for: a blisteringly fast computer that stays cool and is relatively impervious to damage or harm. And since the same technology can be used in cell phones, we may finally have touch screens that won’t shatter when we drop them. The sooner, the better, right?
  • Flex your muscles. Using graphene in things like cell phones, tablets, computers and the like could add flexibility and make smart devices even smarter. Consider touch screens which, like solar cells, have a key ingredient that is in short supply. The indium used to make indium-tin-oxide—the conductive coating on the screen that transmits electrical impulses from your finger when you scroll across it—is disappearing with each new iPhone or similar product that hits the market. Graphene can do the same thing while keeping costs down—and who isn’t interested in saving a little money? Another possibility is a flexible, stretchable computer. Since graphene is strong and transparent, it could someday be used to create a computer you unroll, use and then roll back up… maybe even a computer you can wear around your wrist. Who knows? On a related note—in terms of “muscles,” that is—graphene could someday be implemented into the design of artificial muscles—think bionic man—or utilized in bioengineering—perhaps as a spine-fusing material with the ability to connect to neurons and help paralyzed people walk again!
Graphene's honeycomb structure makes it stronger than steel (courtesy of A-Pakistan News)

Graphene’s honeycomb structure makes it stronger than steel (courtesy of A-Pakistan News)

There are plenty of other potential uses for graphene, of course—from coatings that prevent steel from rusting and clumping materials to make nuclear waste clean up easier, to stronger body armor for law enforcement and more efficient bomb-detecting devices (all of which could be produced on 3D printers that use graphene)—but it will be at least five to ten years before the first products finally reach consumers. When they do, though, brace yourselves.

In the same way that plastic dominated the 20th century and changed the lives of humans everywhere, graphene will be the 21st century “substance of choice” when it kicks our technological evolution into high gear. And when it does, even the most far-fetched dreams of science fiction have the potential to come true.

I can hardly wait!

Posted on July 14, 2013, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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