Fighting Global Warming by miniaturization

One of the pressing concerns of our time is to deal with carbon. It needs to be managed better. From the fossil fuels we extract, to the petro-chemical products that we manufacture and use, to the carbon-based fuel we use, to the recycling of our waste we have had to start counting the carbon compounds used and released into the atmosphere.

For those people who don’t have a strict opinion about irony, it is tempting to point out that although carbon is the basis of organic life, it is carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere that is causing the Earth to warm up and many species to become extinct.

From an industrial point of view it is hard to replace carbon with another less inimical element. Great strides have been made in alternative energy sources but still the production of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels requires mining ores (carbon intensive) and, especially with solar panels, the production of a lot of electricity (usually by burning fossil fuels). To make alternatives to fossil fuels we still require the energy to be had from burning fossil fuels. Traditional photovoltaic panels use silicon that needs high voltages of electricity to be extracted from silica.

Perhaps the answer lies not necessarily in alternatives to carbon but in using carbon in a smarter way. Ever since the discovery of the C60 molecule also known as the buckminsterfullerene, the buckyball and the nanotube scientists and engineers have begun to realize the potential of miniaturizing many processes.

The radical dream of nanotechnology is that products can be built from an atomic level up. We now have the potential to manipulate materials in an entirely new way.

Graphene was discovered in 2004 and led to Andre Geim and others receiving a Nobel Prize in 2010. It is a material that is 1 carbon atom thick and is sometimes called a 2 dimensional material. A nanotube can be thought of as graphene that is rolled up into a tube shape.

In a recent break through it has been discovered that graphene can oscillate at nearly a billion times a second. This is the same frequency range that is used by mobile phones, radios and computers. Thus, a single layer of carbon atoms could pick up radio signals.

This has left the door open for making mobile devices and computers that use a lot less carbon and that require much smaller amounts of electricity to run.

Other research has been made into using a single layer of graphene on glass to make photovoltaic surfaces with no reduction in visibility that can generate electricity. This could revolutionize architecture as energy generation could be designed into the structure of a building rather than having it added on afterwards.

The potential to carry on using carbon but getting carbon to perform at an atomic level could drastically the amount of carbon that we need for industry and also significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that escapes into the atmosphere.