Mind & Matter


Fantasy Materials Become Real

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SEM micrograph of a crumpled graphene nanofabric sheet. Credit: Condensed Matter Physics Group, The University of Manchester


One of the most intriguing aspects of materials is the fact that they never cease to surprise. Although materials are most commonly applied in expected patterns, we are easily surprised when our preconceptions about materials are disrupted.


Take carbon, for example. It's one of the most important elements on earth and the basis for life. Carbon is easily recognized in consumer objects such as diamonds and pencil leads, and is often discussed as a contributor to global warming. However, recent laboratory manifestations of carbon inspire unprecedented awe for the element. Previously confined to the realm of scientific theory, researchers have now physically constructed three of the predicted "pure" geometric forms of carbon: spherical ("buckyballs"), tubular (carbon nanotubes), and flat (graphene).


Russian scientists Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim were recently awarded the Nobel Prize for their construction of the latter form, which is the thinnest and strongest known material—not to mention one of the most conductive and light-transmitting substances. So, it's not a surprise that recent laboratory marvels such as the single atom-thick graphene define an entirely new type of material category. Like the so-called "glassy metals" that blur the mechanical properties of metals with the transparency of glass, graphene sounds like pure science fiction.


Now that scientists have actually produced physical versions of carbon's three wonder structures, however, it is time for the fun yet challenging part: developing applications. Graphene is already slated to transform computer chips and LCD screens, but what about architecture? How about a transparent, conductive, structural textile that can support an entire building? Although this idea may require a long wait, the potential for such a material marvel has at least been proven at a small scale.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.