As our world breaks down into teetering towers of babble and bombast, we can turn to politicians running on platforms of lockdown and war. Or we can embrace a superabundant new era of redemptive technology.
The currently fashionable name for this haven from a heinous world is the “metaverse.” Conceived by Neal Stevenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, the metaverse began as a now rather familiar dystopia. Blinded by frequent blizzards of computer viruses—screens whited out by the titular “snow crash,” markets murked by floods of worthless official monies, and streets beset by “gargoyles” wearing goggles and masks—Stephenson’s characters resort to cryptocurrencies from Hong Kong and revel in the exploits of their digital avatars.
Our reigning literary genius, Stephenson has since written some 20 superior books, from The Baroque Cycle depicting the 17th-century epoch of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebnitz, to a new metaversal vision in Reamde, and on to the visionary pinnacle of Seven Eves, where humanity escapes the planet in a spaceship into a galactic library of the imagination.
Meanwhile, the metaverse has lost its dismal connotations and become a commercial meme, spearheaded by the game industry and such innovative, investible firms as Roblox and Unity, the reigning 3D platforms; Nvidia (NVDA) and AMD (AMD), TSMC (TSM) and Intel (INTC) selling the enabling microchips; and Epic Games, the producer of the irrepressible “Fortnite.”
However, these games remain entertainments yet to descend to our world. They can only distract us from our financial problems, not resolve them in the realization of a science fiction nirvana.
So, as a more edifying alternative to game-playing, I set forth in 2023 around the globe to explore the future of new technologies this side of science fiction.
I began with a speech in Seoul, South Korea, on the promise of the metaverse.
South Korea is the one country that already has created a metaverse, a 3D virtual world linking the physical and digital worlds into a single seamless experience, linked with new forms of money and invention. For all the feverish touting of the new 5G wireless standard around the globe, only a few urban areas, such as Seoul, actually have 5G. Holding half the Korean population, mostly in tall apartment buildings with fiber optic riser-cables, Seoul is almost unique in having sufficiently ubiquitous bandwidth and low latency links to support an efflorescent 3D metaverse, at least in games.
From Korea, I eventually made my way to the startup nation of Israel. There I sampled the offerings of visionary companies assembled by Jonathan Medved’s ingenious “Our Crowd” venture capital firm, which filled the convention center in Jerusalem with some 6,000 paid attendees and some 400 exhibitors, many of them spectacular.
Amidst many software revelations, there was even a flying car, there at the hub of the conference center, from an Israeli startup called “Air.” It is a formidable contrivance that has intrigued the U.S. Air Force.
The consummate flying car, however, awaits the arrival of the “new carbon age”, based on the nanocosm of graphene and other prodigies. This development too was anticipated by Neal Stephenson. Titled The Diamond Age and written a decade before the discovery of graphene in 2004, Stephenson’s vision adumbrated James Tour’s inventions at Rice University in Houston. Using a single layer of carbon atoms—graphene—Tour and his students have launched a providential new age of carbon. In Stephenson’s prophecy of “diamondoids,” it exploits “a dense network of covalent bonds of carbon creating a strong, light and stiff material.”
Stephenson got it essentially right. Single-layer graphene sheets are some 200 times stronger than steel in area, and a thousand times stronger by weight, and as impenetrable as diamonds, but they are not really stiff. They are as elastic as rubber. This miraculous combination of fabulous structural strength with diaphanous lightness and robust flexibility has given flight to a spate of fanciful projects, such as light and speedy flying cars that can remain aloft for days and “space elevators” in gigantic towers into the stratosphere.
Graphene is transparent as glass, and sheds heat better than any other known material. Put it in asphalt and you get no potholes in winter; put it in concrete, and you need a third less for the same structural strength; put it in a severed spinal cord and it transmits signals so surely that the cord repairs itself. Beyond the microcosm of silicon, running out at the nanometer level, graphene promises a new nanocosm of miniaturized and ubiquitous possibilities, from electronics to prosthetics, from energy to surgery.
Until recent breakthroughs at Tour’s Lab, though, the problem with graphene has been that it could be manufactured only in small amounts at high cost. Favored was fabrication in converted Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) chambers from the semiconductor industry or “exfoliation” through complex chemical processing of graphite blocks extracted laboriously from mines.
Working with his talented student Duy Luong from Vietnam, four years ago Tour made breakthrough discovery called flash joule heating that can produce perfect ribbons of turbostratic graphene, ideal for most uses. The plausibly targeted cost approaches $30 a ton, the price of the needed electricity. During a December 2022 visit to Tour’s Lab at Rice, with close guidance from Tour, I actually distilled some of the amazing material myself.
This invention does for graphene what an analogous electrical process accomplished for aluminum early in the twentieth century. What is called the “Aluminum Moment” made into a staple of the industrial age, this once precious metal had been reserved for jewels for royalty and such cynosures as the+ pinnacle of the Washington Monument.
Tour’s research, and a clutch of veteran entrepreneurs, are transforming graphene from a scarce and precious resource into an abundant staple of a new carbon age. Tour and his team have fostered some 14 further companies to apply his breakthrough technology to such diverse goals as fusing severed spinal cords, curing intractable cancers, radically improving the efficiency and strength of concrete, asphalt, and other industrial materials, ending the trillion-dollar cost of counterfeit products and substances, mining rare earth metals from electronic waste, and banishing pollution from factories.
Oh, yes, you may wonder, what is the raw material from which the graphene is transformed.
Tour’s and Duy’s process uses no mined substance such as graphite or bauxite (raw aluminum) or even the silicon in electronics. Instead, it uses waste materials we now pay to have hauled away.
As Tour puts it, “We don’t recycle. We upcycle.” Tour takes the refuse of an industrial age and converts it into the precious transformative resources for a new age of carbon.
Creativity is unlimited, and measured by Shannon’s information of surprise, the surprise of this century is graphene. We are covering its every development—and investible company—in our newsletters. Don’t miss this redemptive new “aluminum moment” of transformative technology as redemptive as the original industrial revolution.
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