“Brazil is the country of the future,” said the French statesman Clemenceau, “and it always will be.” For years I had presumed that that quote had been the basis for Terry Gilliam’s 1985 eponymous movie. Brazil (pictured) is a mild, sideways dystopia — not set, needless to say, in the country itself — a parallel future where a ratchety police state controls its populace through networks of teletype machines, triplicate forms and vacuum delivery tubes.

The film is the past’s nightmare of the future, or ours of the present, filtered through a stylised past — the sharp suits and fedoras of film noir, the schlocky cities of Metropolis. Essentially, the film turned on a single premise: what would the world look like if the transistor had never been invented? Brazil exposes a single remarkable fact: with the passage to transistor technology, we passed from a world of visible to invisible technology.

The first transistor was pretty chunky, too, a sort of tree of ragged chips of silicon, connected by wires and alligator clips, but as soon as it was invented it was on the way to being encoded on a single chip, and then for each chip to support thousands of such. Well within living memory, we passed from a period in which a computer that was little more than a programmable pocket calculator and occupied an entire room, with tens of thousands of valves requiring regular replacement. That story is oft-told in all its variations — such as the term “bug” coming from literal bugs, lodging in the apparatus — but it’s crucial to understand that passage from the visible to the invisible, the change in power relations — and ultimately social relations — it represents. At a pinch, you could repair a valve-computer with a metal paperclip. The transistor threw us into an entirely new order of being.

This was all on my mind as Henry Chan, a young unassuming researcher, led me through a maze of grey brick corridors in the University of Illinois, in Chicago. Materials engineering and chemistry departments are cool because they have actual machines lying around everywhere — those weird, clean chambers with internal rubber arms you stick your own into, shining tubes of liquid nitrogen, powder crushers, etc. They also like to put up posters of their research, which give it a schoolroom effect — colourful diagrams of swirling atoms, with arrows going everywhere. It’s the ground zero where the next world we’ll live in, is being crunched out, piece by piece. A long way from the tubes, I thought, when Henry said: “Would you like to see some graphene?”

Would I ever.

Beyond silicon, beyond germanium and all the other materials used in the technology revolution for their semiconducting properties, is graphene. Semiconductors, unlike simple conductors — i.e. metals — can have their conductivity switched, reversed, steered, by degrees of a million-fold or more. Hence their ubiquity in a high-tech world. But such elements have relative degrees of efficiency, and they aren’t structural. For the last few decades the hunt has been on for materials that could be generated synthetically, with all the virtues of semiconductors and more, but capable of mass production and scaling upwards. Essentially, the hunt has been on for something that combines all these properties in a way that makes smart objects possible — generalised computers, vastly improved conductors, applicable to everyday life, manufacture and energy generation.

“Graphene develops with impurities and fissures, and the fewer of these there are, the more useful the graphene is.”

For the first 30 years of the transistor revolution, all attention was on a succession of semiconducting metals, but by the 1980s, scientists were looking further afield. From the 1960s onwards attention had turned to the nature and structure of carbon, the building block of organic matter, an element capable of generating enormous and simply patterned molecules. Plastics were made possible by the discovery that thousands of molecules could be created from carbon structures from which other atoms hang. By the 1960s, a related group called “carbon nanotubes” had been discovered. Nanotubes are molecules capable of indefinite extension in length, while their walls remain a single layer of carbon atoms thick. Such a ratio gives nanotubes a variety of extraordinary property in terms of conductivity, frictionless movement, and hardness, among others.

But it was only more recently, in the the late 1980s, that the layer of carbon of which the nanotube consists was separately defined as a distinct and manipulable entity, and that was graphene. Essentially, unwrapped, graphene is a single sheet of carbon, of a single atom’s depth, and thus defined as a two-dimensional solid. Combining all the features of materials such as steel, silicon and diamonds, it improves on them, literally a thousand-fold. The stuff is made from well, stuff, carbon, the basic element that is all around us. Were it capable of being output simply and cheaply, a whole series of complex, expensive and bounded manufacturing practices could be massively distributed.

“Here we are,” Henry said, handing me a square of clear resin. It was not what I was expecting. Like many people who work at the absolute cutting-edge of new research, Henry seemed bemused at the naive excitement one is subject to when encountering the future, today.

“So this is … graphene?”

“What? Oh, uh, no.” He stifled a laugh. “I mean, it’s in there.” He pointed to a single small square in the middle of it. Pause. “We, uh, can’t actually use it, it’s really just a sort of … lucky charm.” He stared at me. “Do you know how expensive this stuff is?”

Indeed. Though graphene is the wonder-material of the future, production of it has yet to be scaled up. Since it was first defined distinctly from nanotubes in the early 2000s, stories about the wonder-material have buzzed around with such frequency that, by now, a certain jadedness has set in. It’s the perpetual problem of future forecasting, the “jet pack” phenomenon. When’s it going to be here? Why isn’t it here now? The problem with graphene has been that we are not so much making it as harvesting it. The material is taking from simple graphite by a process known as exfoliation, or more colloquially, the “Scotch tape” method, peeling it off layer by layer. Other methods involve creating it on a base of copper, or numerous other materials. The difficulty is that such processes are inexact — since the material is organic, it is literally being grown. Graphene develops with impurities and fissures, and the fewer of these there are, the more useful the graphene is. And the more expensive.Though the cost has fallen dramatically year-on-year; a quarto-size sheet of average-quality graphene will still set you back $150, and the price goes up as greater purity is demanded.

For that reason, many people working in graphene aren’t working with it — the lab Henry is showing me around is experimenting with the manipulation of graphene using water, simply by computer modelling the behaviour of the molecules using a linked array of gamer PCs as a lo-fi supercomputer. The more viable it becomes to use graphene at larger scales, the more cheap methods of shaping it will come into play. It was only at the beginning of 2013 that a viable process of defect-free graphene production — chemical vapor deposition, where carbon gas deposits on a prepared surface — came into play, and it will take years more work to scale it up out of the lab.

“Such possibilities … are always subject to the Brazil effect.”

The great hope that many place on graphene is that its scale would permit high-tech development to continue at pace, and avoid its coming collision with the end of Moore’s law. Moore’s law famously states that computing power doubles in size and halves in price every 18 months or so, a process based in part on the non-mechanical nature of the technology — there’s no moving parts to provide nasty surprises, or sudden physical limits.

But Moore’s law relies on successive miniaturisation of the scale at which integrated circuits are created — and this is now reaching the atomic limit of the materials being used, particularly copper. The latter material’s limit is 22 nanometres, at which point the atomic level of the metal has been met. Graphene allows that limit to be passed, and numerous other properties — such as greater heat resistance — to be put into play, to achieve computing speeds up to hundreds of times faster than current levels, something that will remain out of reach for personal computing using existing materials.

That is the fantasy of graphene that has appealed to many — a world in which complex information can be transferred instantaneously, and vastly greater computing power — for drug design, for example — becomes possible at an everyday level, making a whole new series of objects possible. With graphene, a whole series of machines could be essentially weightless, foldable, manipulable. The nightmare side of it, of course, is military — one of the major investors in graphene technology is DARPA, the United States defence research agency.

But there are other applications that make graphene and other new materials part of a process of technology distribution with greater returns. Solar cells are one possibility. Currently, solar cells have an efficiency of about 45% from the sunlight they absorb — and the increase has slowed over the years of development, due to the inherent properties of the materials in question. But with graphene there is the potential to create cells with a 100% efficiency, since the material, by its very nature, has a process of total conversion of photons to electrons. Graphene cells are still further down the curve — they have moved from 8% efficiency to 15% efficiency in the past year — because there are significant problems in transferring the power beyond the cell. What would offer huge advances in power yield is that the single-molecule graphene sheets could be layered, thus absorbing and generating hundreds of times more power than existing standard cells. With that in place, a virtuous cycle could be created whereby graphene cells power the production of new cells, with energy to spare.

Such possibilities — those that really, categorically bust us out of existing frameworks — are always subject to the Brazil effect. Reality itself is a form of rhetoric — what exists as our current limits by their very nature give the impression that it could not be otherwise. Currently, there is a backlash against the promise of graphene and new materials, after years in which its mass transformative properties were heralded as coming along any day now. Even the two scientists who won the 2010 Physics Nobel, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, for finally isolating the material, have cautioned that the effects will be in decades rather than years.

Nevertheless, together with additive manufacturing and robotics, such new materials form the third part of the material revolution that is going reshape our lives. And always will.

Peter Fray

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