That Graphene-as-wonder-material narrative

As previously noted, tweeted, posted: my intrigue for Graphene endures despite its boorish public presence. The fanfare coverage for Graphene-as-wonder-material continues, and gets echoed around the world’s press corps. Yet the facts outweigh the conjecture: its too early for plaudits, not enough Graphene-dependent wonder products have surfaced…

It’s not quite tomorrow’s world, yet, to use a phrase attributed to the revered Science/Sci-Fi writer A.C. Clarke, “yesterday’s magic is tomorrow’s reality”. This is a well known phrase among scientists and could be ripe for the Graphene story. That said, scientific discovery takes ‘forever’… a fact easily overlooked and outweighed in popular consciousness by the near mythical concept of the ‘Eureka moment’.

By the way, “Yesterday’s magic…” is such a well known phrase that I had my protagonist, Feng, roll it off his tongue in Monkey Steals Plum. It was borrowed and used in a particular scene – the first time readers meet Feng ‘in person’ rather than glimpsing him through other characters – as its ‘sheer weight of fame’ can act as a sub-textual signal to some readers. Put it this way: it holds some weight, in terms of revealing something of Feng, inasmuch as it’s the line Feng conjures up in response to a TV interviewer, under the studio lights: “What is your key lesson from life?” [See ‘Excerpt’ at the foot of this post].  

So if we’re not quite seeing the dawn of ‘the Graphene era’ that is not to say that things are not happening [see my previous post]. On this point, I am able to share a few insights having recently sought and fortunately been given a free Press pass to the world’s foremost Graphene conference, held nearby in Manchester (2015).

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Graphene is the game changer… but the game has changed

Yes, Graphene is (on the verge of proving) epochal. Sure, it could change the world, so to speak, in at least as many ways as there are current uses for, say, Silicon. But we ought not to think of it as a standalone, ‘magic bullet’ material (in fact: ‘metal’).

Indeed, several speakers at what was dubbed “Graphene Week”, pointed out that the real advances are being made in Graphene collabs, that is, the so-called “sandwich structures” (2D heterostructures made up of 2, 3, 4, etc different layers of various, distinct, 2D materials which offer – together – much greater scope for useful ‘properties’ like insulation, conductivity, strength etc).

In the opening plenary session of Graphene Week, this was a clear message – helping everyone to move on from the singular obsession with that word “Graphene”. Indeed, one of the two ‘Godfathers of Graphene’ (oops, there’s that obsession with “Graphene” again) Prof. Novoselov outlined the current focus:

“2D-based heterostructures can be tailored with atomic precision and individual layers of very different character can be combined together – the properties of these structures can be tuned to study novel physical phenomena or to fit an enormous range of possible applications.”

The time is now… and the clock is ticking

“Time is the enemy”, said one speaker from industry – not academia – perhaps therefore revealing that commercial urgency often has little respect for the slow burn scientific method.

Shu-Jen Han from IBM’s TJ Research Center spoke on his specialist area, Nanoelectronics, but his talk was far from esoteric. He spoke frankly about the opportunity for Graphene given that Silicon has plateaued – yet was clear on Graphene’s role as a complement to Silicon, “not a replacement”.

Han was a good, focused speaker and clearly emphasised the bottom line challenge to Graphene: to sieze the day, at least “within the next five to ten years” before the patience of industry and investors fades.

Engels, and other echoes from the Industrial past

Some light relief. It was a privilege to hear the charismatic Prof. Novoselov speak – the ‘Godfather of Graphene’ alongside Prof. Andre Geim, both University of Manchester. Novoselov told an amusing anecdote, that doubled as a nod of respect to the (old school Socialist) Engels. 

In his talk at the plenary session on the morning of the opening day, the self-effacing, good-natured professor revealed that he and colleagues had hoped for the swanky new build on the Manchester campus – “The National Graphene Institute” – to be named after Engels. That would have been wonderful and fitting given Engels’ concern for humanity and his lived (19th Century) experience in the very same city of Manchester (the, euh, ‘spiritual’ home of Graphene).   

The Engels name conjures up industrial fixations like ‘production’ and this remains a major stumbling block to Graphene’s slow progress towards ‘tomorrow’. Speakers rather blurred into one on this topic, but the general sub-text was that production methods and results need serious attention if we are to see ever greater applications – beyond lightbulbs, batteries, comms – such as buildings or aircraft.  

Nonetheless scientists inch forward, all around the world, as one… picture a centipede when held aloft from terra firma and you can perhaps imagine their unity and concerted, team effort.  

There is every chance that all the various, ongoing efforts around the world will some day sum up to beat the clock and safeguard Graphene’s success as the linchpin among 2D heterostructure technology, production and progress. Of this I am sure: people like Novoselov and Geim, and innumerable others, will leave no stone unturned on their collaborative journey.

How do I know? Partly it was having listened to Novoselov at the Graphene conference; and having spied Geim in the wings, intently listening, asking the odd, pointed question, overseeing – and partly I have every confidence going by the paper trail evidence…

In the afterglow of Graphene Week, I dig up the intriguingly named paper “Science and Technology Roadmap for Graphene, related Two-Dimensional Crystals, and Related Systems” authored by Novoselov et al, complete with 2,344 cited footnotes… 2,344? Some kind of record? Regardless, a good kind of science: rigorous, well-read, real. Go see for yourself: Nanoscale, Vol  7, No. 11, March 2015, Pages 4587-5062. 

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Given the nod, several paragraphs above, here’s the relevant excerpt from Monkey Steals Plum


‘What is your key lesson from life?’

A face fired off in Feng’s mind. He quelled the urge to speak about his daughter. Yet the effort stalled any of his stock lessons from coming to him, despite all of his years, all of his experiences. He felt his marrow turn to mulch under the studio lights. Feng’s left eye vaguely, briefly twitched.

The visual tell was imperceptible to most of the crew on the studio floor. His interrogator, Lu, was glancing down at her notes. Only the veteran TV director in the booth upstairs had clocked something in the language of Feng’s face while monitoring another camera’s close-up. The Aussie director kicked himself for having not cut to the close-up in time to catch the flicker of doubt in an otherwise flawless performance.


The moment had passed in the blink of an eye and Feng was poised again having reeled off a quote which the hostess was dutifully echoing.

‘Yesterday’s magic is tomorrow’s reality? Well, that is a wonderful line. Yesterday’s magic is tomorrow’s reality. Your key lesson from life is as enigmatic as you, yourself, Mr Feng.’

The Graphene-as-wonder-material narrative persists, but for how long? To authentically be wonderful, Graphene will have to some day be spoken of in those same terms as above, as yesterday’s magic.


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