You can use dry ice for a lot – keeping a picnic lunch cool, generating fogfor backyard karaoke. Now it’s about to revolutionize computing allover again.
More important, it’s going to touch off a scramble for a wondersubstance that’s in high demand, and produced mostly in China. If youfeel you missed out on the rare earth boom, you’re on the cusp ofsomething equally lucrative.
The story begins with two breakthroughs, both revealed in the last 10 days.
Researchers at IBM announced this month they’ve built the first integrated circuit made of something called graphene.
The wafer you’re looking at is as thin as humanly possible — exactly one atom layer thick. And yet it’s powerful enough to…
- Make mobile phones work in places they can’t now
- Make almost any electronic device run faster, with less electricity
- Power devices that can see inside the human body without harmful X-rays.
You can’t do that with the stuff that’s made up integrated circuitsfor the last 40 years — silicon. Graphene is on its way to becoming “thenew silicon.”
Also this month, researchers at Northern Illinois University made a parallelbreakthrough, equally important: They hit on a way to manufacturegraphene in high volumes.
Instead of previous methods — splitting graphite crystals with tape,or heating silicon carbide to high temperatures — the NIU scientistscame up with something so simple your teenager could do it in the garage(although we wouldn’t advise it) — burning magnesium in dry ice.
“Up until now,” says professor Narayan Hosmane, “graphene has beensynthesized by various methods utilizing hazardous chemicals and tedioustechniques. This new method is simple, green and cost-effective.”
Graphene is derived from graphite — which itself is derived from the humblecarbon atom. The two scientists at the University of Manchester whoisolated graphene in 2004 won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010.
“As a material, it is completely new,” declared the Royal SwedishAcademy of Sciences upon bestowing the prize. “As a conductor ofelectricity, it performs as well as copper. As a conductor of heat, itoutperforms all other known materials.
“It is almost completely transparent, yet so dense that not even helium, the smallest gas atom, can pass through it.
“It is not only the thinnest material in the world,” adds The New York Times,“but also the strongest: a sheet of it stretched over a coffee cupcould support the weight of a truck bearing down on a pencil point.”
So it will have uses other than electronics. Physicist Michio Kakufrom City University of New York envisions more lightweight aircraft andstronger plastics, among other innovations.
Here’s the rub: “Good graphite is not that easy to find,” says our naturalresource maven Byron King. “Graphite prices have more than doubled inrecent years.” No graphite, no graphene.
On top of that, Byron continues, “China controls 80% of the globalgraphite market — just like China runs 97% of the world supply of rareearths.” And China’s reserves are dwindling.
So not only are we looking at “the new silicon” in terms ofpotential… we’re also looking at “the next rare earths” in terms ofscarcity. And yes, just as with rare earths, the rush is on to find newsources outside China.
Many lie in developing countries run by dictators who’d love nothingmore than to nationalize a big graphite find as soon as some companydoes the hard work of proving it up. But one of the largest is in NorthAmerica — 8 million tons — controlled by a tiny firm Byron recentlyuncovered.
It can produce graphite for $400 a ton and sell it for $2,000. That’s$12.8 billion of potential for a company with a market cap of $58million.
Byron guided his readers to rare earth gains of 93%… 147%…even 178%. If you missed out, don’t feel bad. Let him tell you about the“new silicon” firm with shares still under $1 each… at least for now.It’s all in this presentation