Let me start this article by asking a hypothetical question: Will we ever be able to 3-D print gold or silver through nanotechnology? If carbon can be transformed into graphene through atom manipulation will it ever be possible to reverse engineer lead into gold? The quick answer is yes and no.
The element lead was transmuted into gold back in the 1980’s through a nuclear reaction, which itself is nanotechnology. So the yes answer is: all one has to do is remove three protons from the nucleus of lead which takes a lot of energy and cost more than the value of the result – gold. Needless to say, that transmutation still remains economically unacceptable. Lead is atomic number 82 and gold atomic number 79. The no answer is: while gold coins can be 3-D printed they would still use the element of gold itself as its material base. The cheapest way to print money is still within the Federal Reserve. You don’t even want me to go down that path.
Why is gold treated with such sustained value? Of all the minerals mined from the Earth, none is more useful than gold. Its usefulness is derived from a diversity of special properties. Gold conducts electricity, does not tarnish, is very easy to work, can be drawn into wire, can be hammered into thin sheets, alloys with many other metals, can be melted and cast into highly detailed shapes, has a wonderful color and a brilliant luster. And now we can use it at nano-scale to make smaller and more precise components of a larger product or alloy it with other materials giving them greater value.
Then along came the discovery of graphene to really disrupt the value of rare earth elements, like gold. Graphene is the thinnest and strongest material ever developed. It is 200 times stronger than steel and several times tougher than a diamond! Furthermore, it conducts both electricity and heat better than copper. Many believe it will soon replace silicon in semi-conductors and researchers claim it is the most important substance to be created since plastic.
The official discovery time line for graphene was 2004. Two Russians are credited for the discovery with Nobel Prizes in 2011. In a very short period of time, graphene is looked at as the “Miracle Material” that will change the world. In just 10 years, graphene has become an augment, enhancer or replacement with almost every product ever manufactured. And as a result has increased not just the monetary value of other materials but the productive value as well.
Every “it’s to good to be true” product usually has a down side too. In the case of graphene, that down side is the time and cost of producing large sheet of the thin material. However, researchers have recently developed a new technique that produces large sheets of graphene through the use of a cheap copper material. This new method is capable of producing large-area graphene at a 100 times cheaper than existing methods, according to a study at the University of Glasgow. Again, there is no end to Murphy’s Law.
The current focus of graphene research is to obtain high quality graphene over large areas to realize electronic and optic applications with advanced mechanical functionalities such as flexible transparent electrodes or large area touch sensor devices. What that means is that it takes the rigid structure out of the object. New cell phones will not only be 3-D but they will be so thin and flexible that you will be able to bend or fold them to put in your pocket or purse. The future use of graphene is going to be endless.