In 2010, two University of Manchester researchers won a Nobel Prize in physics for their work on a material called graphene. Graphene is a honeycomb-shaped sheet of carbon atoms arranged one-atom thick. That ultra-thinness gives the material useful properties -- ultimately, scientists want to use graphene to build transistors, or, say, a paper-thin computer.
While those devices are a ways off, other graphene applications are coming shortly, says Michael Tomczyk, managing director at Wharton's Mack Center for Technological Innovation. Graphene has properties similar to rare earth metals currently used in electronic devices such as tablets, solar cells, and smartphones. While these metals are not rare in terms of gross volume, they are becoming increasingly tougher to access. Rare earths, says Tomcyzk, "will become prohibitively scarce and expensive or possibly unavailable by 2030." He adds, "Graphene is not only 'the next big thing' in advanced materials. It is a solution to the pending extinction of a whole category of rare materials that we will need to replace, and soon."
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