Monday, February 14, 2011

Graphene and Fullerenes on PBS's Nova

Fullerenes and Graphene are going to radically change electronics and industry. They promise terrific features with a great potential for sustainability in their manufacture.

In the Making Stuff Stronger episode (about 25 minutes in) they discuss CNTs - Carbon Nanotubes.  CNTs are about 100 times stronger than steel, yet you can make them without mining.

About 18 minutes into the Making Stuff Smaller episode, Graphene is described. These single layers of carbon are the best conductors (besides a superconductor), the best thermal conductors, and can be made using pencils and tape!

The Making Stuff Cleaner segment had the best news, IMHO. About 37 min. in, a researcher at Argonne National Lab was shown using shredded plastic bags to generate CNTs. The catalyst is cobalt acetate and is needed in volume. But the process converts about a fifth of the plastic bag mass to CNTs according to a New Scientist article.

Fullerenes (including CNTs) and graphene can be made into electrical components while still remaining very tough. So we may soon have printed computers, paper batteries, solar umbrellas, and auto bodies that store electricity. What if the foam insulation you spray into your wall could stop a bullet, record humanity's entire music collection, store enough electricity to run your EV, and be safe for your toddler to chew on?

With the supply resources for these carbon materials being readily available in most of our waste streams, the critical challenge seems to be how to get the energy costs down. But since the solar resource supply is 5000 times the current demand, I think that barrier will fall pretty soon. In a few decades the oil industry could be more about plastics than energy.

And someone may get really rich developing the most elegant solution to our growing climate change challenge: suck the excess carbon out of the air and mineralize it into cheap, high tech carbon materials that radically reduce our collective carbon footprint while offering the potential for stuff to get smarter.

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