Once upon a time there were no Plastics!
But then the furniture or cooking appliance lasted and our clothes were sturdy and the oilskin were made with whale oil.
Then came plastics, I still remember Bakelite, electric switch covers, radio casings, kitchenware and even pipe stems were made of the stuff. It was developed by a Belgian chemist back in 1907, Leo Baekeland, then living in New York.
Then came the bendable, mouldable, synthetic and semi-synthetic materials mostly made from petrochemicals [oil] we all love and hate, and is used to produce anything from paperclips to spaceships.
The good old-fashioned wood, paper, stone, horn, leather, metal, glass and ceramic have been displaced and we now have 8 million tons of plastic ending up in our oceans every year, much of it bottles, bags and food containers, microplastics and pellets. Back in 2012 plastic pollution of our oceans was estimated at 165 million tons.
Bad as it is plastics have also made our lives a heck of a lot easier and the inventions of all kinds of plastics and synthetics for just about anything have indubitably improved our lot.
And now we can look forward to ‘Graphene’. It was invented back in 2004 when two scientist from Manchester Uni rubbed a pencil on a piece of paper and placed a piece of sticky tape over the top and then pulled the tape away and won the Nobel Prize in Physics.
What they did was to prove that a single sheet of carbon atoms could be made from graphite, and it was immensely strong and so thin that one could fit 300 million sheets into a single millimetre and it would be invisible to the naked eye.
So what? you ask, well the practical use of graphene is of course the strength when used in your phone or other devices, and then there is its ability to conduct electricity – 1 million times more conductive than copper which you’d appreciate if you are playing games on your phone or tablet and the phone gets really hot after a while. The heat is caused by resistance and resistance slows things down. Graphene circuits have almost no resistance so the electrons can run as fast as they like.
On top of that the graphene is flexible and elastic up to 20% of its length. Your phone might therefore be transparent and hilariously powerful and able to bend and stretch.
I guess that the makers of these devices are getting quite excited about the prospects of printing circuits and batteries all based on graphene onto a flexible, transparent display for your next tablet that you can fold into a phone which in turn could be rolled and stretched into a bracelet or a watch.
Graphene is also impermeable, not even a helium atom can pass through it, and not a single atom of water.
At this stage it is used in semi-conductor, electronics, battery energy and composites industries, but it is but the beginning. We can look forward to indestructible gadgets, endlessly powerful and reshapeable. Maybe we are heading back to the ‘good old’ days when things lasted – except for smell of whale oil?