Graphene, microbes and boron buckyballs: The future of automobiles

The people with big brains and lab coats are busier than ever, exploring some pretty freaky territory.

Let’s take a look at three notable areas of exploration, each of which could apply to the automobile and transportation scene.

Super-thin graphene

About 10 years ago, scientists discovered a new form of carbon graphite, which they called graphene.

It is the world’s thinnest known material — exactly one atom thick. It’s also 200 times stronger than steel and the world’s best conductor of electricity.

A recent study published in the journal Nature speculated that a membrane made of graphene could be used to isolate protons (by their nature, electrically charged) from the hydrogen available in air.

A fuel-cell vehicle could then be electrically driven, as all fuel-cell vehicles are, but without the cumbersome part of storing hydrogen on board or requiring a complex refuelling infrastructure system.

Industrious microbes

Cloning ourselves or bringing back woolly mammoths and Neanderthals are just two of the fun things we might be able to do with further advances in genome mapping and manipulation.

But George Church, one of world’s top genome experts, is particularly pumped about modifying microbes to create transportation fuel.

Microbes have already demonstrated that they are able to convert wasted carbon dioxide into usable fuels, but Church wants to modify them so they are super good at it, and easily replicated, so the conversion could be done on a grand and economical scale.

“Making new petroleum should be as simple and straightforward as brewing beer,” he told The Economist Technology Quarterly.

Super-tough boron buckyballs

Buckyball is the nickname for a very interesting structure called buckminsterfullerene — a tiny molecular structure made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged in pentagons and hexagons.

It was so named because the architect, Richard Buckminster Fuller, used these shapes for his famous domes, like the one he created for Expo ’67 in Montreal.

First discovered in 1985, the carbon buckyballs excited scientists, because they are hollow inside, super stable on the outside, and very tiny.

Last summer, researchers built the first ever buckyball made entirely of boron molecules.

Unlike their carbon counterparts, the boron buckyballs like to react with each other and other things.

This means they can be connected in chains and would bond with hydrogen, which had the researchers speculating they might one day be used to store hydrogen.

Hydrogen is tough to store because it is so light. It needs to be kept under pressure and condensed to be of any use as a transportation fuel, and that takes energy and a bulky infrastructure.

Here’s hoping something incorporating boron buckyballs becomes the fascinating alternative — both for the triumph of science and for letting us say “boron buckyballs” out loud.

It’s just more fun.

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