The US has tremendous natural advantages going into what is the Re-Industrial Revolution, beginning with a huge supply of hydrocarbons now in the form of shale gas and oil that can be used to produce nanotubes and graphene.
Andy W., a librarian at a major US university, has been a No Hot Air reader almost as long as I’ve been writing it, and has provided many invaluable tips over the years. He says he “follows one rule in his research on shale; he only reads people who know more than himself and, fortunately, is overwhelmed with research material.”
The latest contribution from Andy follows after the jump, but let me first note there has been much discussion at shale gas conferences this year about how to match demand to the great supply coming on board. We hear about the increasing use of shale gas for power generation, CNG and LNG for transportation and conversion of gas to NGLs. The history of shale gas has been one where the completely new continually disrupts things for the better. It doesn’t get much better than this, though:
The Re-Industrial Revolution
The Re-Industrial Revolution is coming. Based on the bounty of shale hydrocarbons that have been discovered, the Re-Industrial Revolution will transform industry by replacing commonplace substances such as copper, silicon, steel, and aluminum, with materials such as carbon nanotubes (see illustration below) and graphene. One industry which should be transformed is the electrical grid.
“Carbon has this genius of making a chemically stable two-dimensional, one-atom-thick membrane in a three-dimensional world. And that, I believe, is going to be very important in the future of chemistry and technology in general.”
Richard E. Smalley, 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Lecture
The industries that will be transformed the most should welcome the revolution. The electrical grid, based on copper and wasting 20% of its electricity through wire resistance will be happy to have a material that is cheaper and more electrically conductive than old reliable copper.
The Re-Industrial Revolution’s early phases are occurring right now in places ranging from Williamsport, Pennsylvania to Williston, North Dakota, and provides jobs for drillers, mechanics, heavy equipment makers, steel makers and workers in sand quarries. On the surface, these jobs look no different from jobs in the first Industrial Revolution, but are the forerunners of the jobs to come. Carbon nanotube electrical filament braiders, and printers of solar cells on graphene substrates might be some of coming new jobs. Our lives will be cleaner and our industry will run more efficiently if these potential benefits occur.
America’s first contribution to the Industrial Revolution may have been the telegraph, which started both the ages of electricity and communications, and the first contribution nanotubes may make to the Re-Industrial Revolution may be with electrically conductive wire superior in weight, strength, conductivity to copper wire.
Of Rice and Manchester
Research on the carbon future is taking place around the world, but Rice University and the University of Manchester (see video below), with their Nobel Prize winning work on fullerenes and graphene, respectively, offer examples. Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the team that discovered the C60 fullerene but as the quote above illustrates, Smalley also had a vision of graphene, a one atom thick molecule of pure carbon in mind even then. Rice then proceeded to become a hub for research into advanced carbon molecules, the most important of which is the carbon nanotube.
Nanotubes combine great strength with other desirable properties such as high tensile strength, chemical resistance, and in some cases, electrical conductivity. Applications suggested by these qualities range from everything from space elevators, to substituting for copper wire in electrical cables. Recently Rice University researchers detailed how they have, in collaboration with industry, braided nanotubes together in a fiber that carried a current to light a bulb.
Moving from copper to light-weight, high-strength carbon nanotubes for electrically conductive applications will cause a revolution in how electrical machines are designed. Electrical windings in motors will be lighter to do the same work. It is not out of the question that the all-electric car would become a much more competitive product against the internal combustion engine powered automobile if the electrical motors moved from copper to nanotube windings.
Researchers at the University of Manchester won their Nobel Prize for their work in prying apart the two-dimensional, one atom-thick molecule of graphene from a lump of graphite. Their research was done on flakes of graphene only one molecule thick. Their tests found it was impervious to gases, strong in tension, and electrically conductive.
Graphene and nanotube research is still in its infancy, with exciting results coming from lab work. The European Union, Korea, and Samsung are just three parties pursuing this research. US graphene research is going on with funding from the National Science Foundation and other groups. Nonetheless, major US corporations are not saying much at all about their research into graphene and nanotubes and even less about when they will be on the market.
If nanotubes and graphene promise such revolutionary applications, why do we not hear more about them? Brief speculation allows for several reasons. First, the research is not ready for sale, so all talking about it would do would be to alert potential competitors. Second, from theory, to laboratory, to factory are three huge steps with no certainty that success at a previous step will lead to success at the next. Third, there is an inordinate fear of over-promising on graphene and carbon nanotubes and under-delivering.
Fortunately, both Manchester and Rice are trying to communicate their work to the public. Manchester has an excellent website devoted to their pioneering work in graphene. Rice University nanotube research appears to lag Manchester in volume of public outreach, but it does have some, including this video showing a light suspended by two nanowires through which flows the current to light a bulb.
What Happens Next?
Nanotubes and graphene are made of carbon, so ample supplies of hydrocarbons will be needed for mass production. Presently, America is well placed to provide hydrocarbons enough for domestic energy and the traditional needs of the chemical industry, while also providing for nanotube production. The possession of a great abundance of raw materials leads to a spate of inventiveness to make something useful and profitable out of what would otherwise be a wasted material. There is no reason not to assume the old incentives—find a low cost raw material, and make something high-value out of it—works just as well today as it did before.
This is why opposition to shale, which is allowing US industries to make 30 year bets on ample supplies of hydrocarbons, is so misplaced. There are problems with any energy source, but there are major benefits and advantages to be had from shale development. This paper has focused on nanotubes and graphene, particularly for electrical uses, but there are many others. If the inventive research now being conducted around the world on nanotubes and graphene leads to mass production at an industrial scale, those areas with an abundance of low-cost hydrocarbons will have a competitive advantage in manufacturing.
More importantly, if the United States seizes on the advantages its shale bounty gives it, there is no reason it should not dominate the Re-Industrial Revolution with its commanding position from drill bit to Bunsen burner tip.