THERE IS A question, the answer to which could change the world. It is a simple question. A terrifying question. The question is this: What the hell happened to graphene?
Maybe you remember graphene. It got big, oh, 10-ish years ago, around the time when two University of Manchester researchers won the Nobel Prize for “discovering” it. That’s in scare quotes because all they really did, in a now famous example of serendipity in the sciences, was peel a piece of literal sticky tape off graphite—the stuff in literal pencils—and notice, basically by accident, that the residual flakes comprised a single layer of carbon atoms. Behold graphene, the world’s first “2D materia.” And that’s in quotes because, well, you can still see it with the naked eye. So it’s obviously got some dimensionality of the third kind to it.
Technicalities aside: Graphene was a miracle material, a carbonaceous coup. It was as if some alien had handed us the keys to the future. Stiff but stretchy. Microthin but superstrong. Translucent but impermeable, and transistorizable to boot. Immediately, scientists promised us the stars. Flying cars! Viscous drug-delivery droids! Elevators from Earth to the freaking space station! “The visions, the predictions of sci-fi writers and tech gurus,” Manchester U announced in a video, “are finally within our grasp.” “It was as if science fiction had become reality,” said a Samsung exec. Quantum this and superconducting that. Billions of dollars invested. Labs are set up everywhere.
Then … nothing.
Well, not nothing. These days, you can find graphene in, like, phones and stuff. Some people do origami with it. But that’s not a space elevator. Or even an unbreakable condom (one of the more modest promises). How can that be? How can the most miraculous material in the history of the world, funded up the wazoo, all but dematerialize? The official explanation is that science is slow, the market resists change, and graphene’s probably too good at what it does anyway, so let’s look at other 2D materials instead. “Old news,” was how one materials scientist put it to me. He didn’t seem to understand why I wanted to talk about graphene at all.
I wanted to talk about it because … the truth is out there, and there’s something slimy going on. Think about it. If you’ve ever actually played with graphene, maybe made a solution of it, or spiked it with some acid to transform it into graphene oxide, then you know what it can look like. It can look quite scary, indeed like slime, all black and gooey, even alive. You also know what this could mean.
It could mean that the official explanation for what happened to graphene, the “scientific” explanation, is a lie. It could mean that graphene didn’t just dematerialize but, quite the opposite, rematerialized. It could mean that the worst thing that couldn’t happen, did happen.