Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the United States patent office in 1899, was quoted as saying “everything that can be invented has been invented.” All os us, and especially patent attorneys, know the quote is far from the truth. One example is the periodic table of chemical elements. When I was born in 1945, the table had 96 entries, with curium being the latest. When I was in chemistry class in 1961, lawrencium was discovered and became #103. No doubt, many believed in 1945 and in 1961 that all the elements had been discovered. Then, earlier this year, atoms of a new super-heavy element #117 were created by scientists in Germany, the temporarily named ununseptium element is on the way to being officially recognized as a member of the periodic table.
Discovery of new things goes far beyond new elements. Scientists from IBM Research have discovered a new class of polymer materials that could potentially transform manufacturing and fabrication in the fields of microelectronics, aerospace, and transportation. By combining high performance computing with synthetic polymer chemistry, the scientists have found materials that are resistant to cracking, are stronger than bone, and have the ability to self-heal to their original shape. The new materials are completely recyclable to their original form.
Perhaps the most amazing materials discovery is graphene. Imagine a material that is one atom thick, can conduct electricity, is 100 times stronger than steel material, and can stop bullets. Some would say that is not possible. Scientists have known about graphene for decades but had not been able to extract the one atom thick, two-dimensional crystal material from graphite. However, the future changed in 2004 when two Russian-born researchers at The University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, unraveled the mystery. The two scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010.
It seems that the possibilities for the use of graphene are infinite. graphene could revolutionize medicine as nanotechnology is beginning to transform the practice of medicine. Scientists at Manchester are predicting breakthroughs for the treatment of cancer and other rare conditions such as Parkinson’s. Because graphene can be used as a membrane to separate liquids, it may have huge benefits for water purification so badly needed in many developing countries. Graphene could make the world a safer place by improving aircraft and automotive technologies. Bulletproof clothing for the defense industry could save many lives. Since graphene conducts electricity, it may revolutionize the development and manufacturing of electronic devices. New forms of paint may be developed that reduce corrosion. Graphene sensors may be able to detect even minute traces of dangerous chemicals. Graphene can absorb light and retain it as energy. Combined with its strength and flexibility, graphene may result in bendable mobile phones and cameras with enormous battery life. Wearable electronics in clothing made from graphene may change how we communicate. These are just a few of the ideas emerging from researchers about the potential of graphene, but the ultimate potential will be limited only by our imagination. See Possibly the biggest technological revolution since the silicon chip for a short video describing some possibilities.