Non-Fiction Reviews

The superstrong, superthin, and superversatile material
that will revolutionise the world

(2018) Les Johnson & Joseph E. Meany, Prometheus,
£27 / Can$20 / US$19, trdpbk, 269pp, ISBN978-1-633-88325-3


The subtitle ‘the superstrong, superthin, and superversatile material that will revolutionise the world’ is quite a claim but the authors are experts in their fields; Les Johnson is a physicist who works for NASA at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and Joseph E. Meany is a materials scientist on the organising committee of the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  The main text runs to 232 pages, following which are Acknowledgements, an Appendix, Notes, and an Index.

Graphene is pure carbon in a flat sheet just one atom thick; in theory the sheet could be in any size but in practice (at least, so far) the sheets are very small. This book goes into the properties of graphene and looks at the considerable range of possibilities for the material.

Their account is divided into four parts and opens with ‘Discovery And Controversy’, continues with ‘Infiltrating Our Lives’ and ‘Winners And Losers’, and concludes with ‘What’s Next?’. The various chapters look at carbon in its several forms: graphite, graphene, diamond, fullerenes (also known as buckyballs), carbon nanotubes, carbon fibres, and so on. It is clear research into such materials is rapidly rising worldwide, as is their use.  The authors also look at other materials which have, or have not, fulfilled their promise and discuss both the advantages and possible disadvantages of graphene. There was a reason asbestos became so popular - it had many very useful properties. On the other hand asbestos proved to be very dangerous for human health and has been mostly abandoned. We know so little about the impact of tiny, single-molecule thick sheets of anything but they too could prove to have terrible effects - a lungful of graphene platelets might prove to be equally hazardous. Research is clearly needed into both the uses and dangers of materials such as graphene and its derivatives.

One potential use, albeit probably some considerable time in the future, is for solar sails; sails measuring several square kilometres would weigh almost nothing and could be packed up very small for launching from Earth.  Once deployed in space probes could be sent round the solar system powered by nothing other than sunlight.

Apart from its strength and engineering properties, the electrical properties of graphene are also very interesting. Parallel sheets of it can store high amounts of electrical charge and be used to form batteries; as the charge is stored as free electrons, rather than in the electro-chemistry of conventional batteries (including rechargables), such batteries would not suffer from any degradation with repeated use, they would have high capacity, and be capable of being rapidly charged and discharged.  If large sheets of graphene could be produced and suitably connected, one could envision an electric car where the charge is stored within the bodywork itself; there would be no need for separate batteries and the graphene would also ensure the vehicle was both lightweight and very strong.

This is just scratching the surface of the possibilities for the material and the authors go into a great deal of details about the possibilities, some (currently) more fanciful than others.  Essentially, for a good read, they do so in an interesting way that is very informative yet lively.  Furthermore, being well versed in science fiction, they make a number of references to some familiar ‘devices of the future’ which I thought resonated well.

At first I wondered how they could keep a potentially dry-topic book such as this interesting; after all, surely carbon is just carbon?  So what if this form of it is flat and only one atom thick?  But I was not disappointed; the authors explained their science well and in an easy to follow manner.  They spent a lot of time theorising about the future and stressing that these were only possibilities, emphasising that a great deal of research would be required before such realities might come about, but none of this in a way that sounded like they were merely guessing or giving way to wild flights of fantasy.

All-in-all, I thought it an enjoyable and very informative read.

Peter Tyers


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