The Carbon Age
Civilization is about to evolve a step
Human civilization can be divided into epocs using a number of criteria, such as the adoption of agriculture, the development of various technologies, or the development of new kind of political systems. One long-standing criteria is the physical material with which most technologies of an era are manufactured. We are about to cross the threshold of a major paradigm shift in this regard. This is special because it has only happened a few times in human history.
Human civilization is often divided into major epocs using criteria pertaining to the evolution of increasingly advanced civilizations. For example, one of the most signficant transitions in human history occurred when people switched from a hunter/gatherer society to an agricultural society. One of the most common and most overarching criteria is the physical material that human civilization uses to manufacture most of its technologies. Classically, there have only been three such "ages". The stone age was the first, followed by the bronze age, and eventually the iron age. The transitions between these ages occurred at different times throughout the world, but represent a common pattern in societal and archeological development.
I would argue that a number of other such ages have occurred, as well Since the stone, bronze, and iron ages mark signficant transitions in the technologies that can be created, any new material that has the effect of transforming a large fraction of a civilization's technologies should count as well. For example, the 20th century was the plastics age (amongst other materials ages indicative of the 20th century). Plastics truly changed the world. Other materials that have had a tremendous effect on the way people conduct their lives include glass, rubber, cotton, paper, copper, steel (not to be confused with iron), and of course, everyone's modern favorite, silicon. With each of these new materials civilization has transformed so drastically that it becomes impossible to imagine how anyone lived before the new materials were developed. The structure of industry, government, and private home life are all radically altered by the development of these new materials.
Even with my new additions to the classic three (stone, bronze, and iron), there have still only been about ten major material ages, spread over a time of tens of thousands of years. Most of them have occurred within the last 2000 years, and several have occurred within the last 200 years. Our acquisition of new materials is increasing exponentially.
The new age
Modern civilization is rife with new kinds of materials. The 20th century certainly yielded many more materials than the ones I listed above. However, not all of those materials have have a near unfathomable effect on society. Only civilization-alterning materials should count. One could argue that oil was the major material of the 20th century. However, I am confining my epocs into materials of which things are made, not merely sources of energy. In that regard, plastics qualify as the placeholder for oil along the timeline of material ages.
While we are developing numerous new materials in our modern era, I believe one really stands out from the crowd. I started thinking this several years ago, but never bothered to write up my thoughts on it until now. It is possible that I am writing this late enough that it will not feel profound to many readers. Nevertheless, let me try to illuminate just how remarkable this new material is. Carbon is our new age. This must be phrased carefully. Some people refer to a "carbon age" during the 20th century, with reference to oil, and celebrate the coming end to the carbon age since they are speaking purely from the point of view of fossil fuels. My discussion relates to materials for manufacture however, and as such, carbon only qualifies presently in its application to plastic. The new carbon age is that age where we build materials out of carbon bucky-balls (zero dimensional), carbon nanotubes (one dimensional), carbon sheets (two dimensional), and possibly carbon solids or carbon shells (three dimensional).
Everyone has heard of carbon nanotubes, but that is an in between stage. There was an early stage. Bucky balls are soccer shaped spheres of carbon atoms that were discovered in the mid-eighties. It was later discovered that a Bucky ball could be expanded in one direction into a cylinder with half-domes closed its ends, just like a sausage. This is a nanotube. There are several molecular lattices that a nanotube can be formed with. There is no theoretical limit to the length of a nanotube. A single nanotube could stretch from the Earth to the moon and it would still be a single molecule. That is incredible.
It has also recently be discovered that nanotubes can be expanded along their short axis to form nanosheets, sheets of pure carbon that are bonded into a single molecule. This is basically graphite. Graphite structure was aready known. The discovery was that we can create and control nanosheets, similar to nanotubes.
What is cool about carbon
Why are carbon molecules so amazing that I think they qualify as a new material age? I believe materials based on carbon will revolutionize civilization in the 21st century. There are two major reasons for this. The first is that carbon is extremely strong, while also extremely light weight. Nanotubes are about sixty times stronger than steel at microscopic scales. Presently, we cannot replicate this strength at macroscopic scales, but I believe we will within a few decades. The second incredible thing about nanotubes is that they are highly electrically conductive, quite a bit more than copper.
Nanotube based technologies will come in not one, but two major flavors. Nanotubes will be used for physical structures due to their strength, and will be used for electrical devices due to their low electrical resistance. Some examples of applications for structural carbon are automobiles, buildings, furniture, space ships, airplanes, boats, towers (for antennae or for suspending power cables), pretty much anything that we presently use steel and plastic for as a matter of fact. Examples of applications for electrical carbon are long distance power cables (the lower resistence loses less electricity than copper over long distances) and microelectronics. When used as a replacement for copper in microcircuitry, carbon will transmit electrical signals faster (allowing faster computing operations) and with less heat, which is good since modern computers are on the verge of melting their own components.
One of the most science-fiction sounding applications is the space elevator. A space elevator is the "sky hook" of historical lore. It is a cable (a ribbon actually) that orbits the Earth in a geosynchronous orbit (so it stays over the same point on the Earth's surface at all times. The ribbon hangs down from geosynchronous orbit to a point on Earth's surface. One can then simply climb the ribbon to reach space. It would be a long hike, but there's nothing intrinsically difficult about it. There is quite a bit of research going on right now toward creating efficient feasible ribbon climbers for future space elevators. The space elevator sounds ludicrous, but the science supporting it is solid and well studied. The problem is, a space elevator can't be built with steel. Steel isn't strong enough to support the weight of the ribbon. Nanotubes are strong enough though. The cost of putting an object in space would drop dramatically if we develop the space elevator. I believe we will make solid progress toward this goal by 2020. A space elevator may not actually in place at that time, but I believe a serious plan with committed funds will exist, and that the plan will involve a complete space elevator before 2030. This is my prediction. It will be interesting to see if I am right.
We are about to enter the carbon age for the following reason. I believe that in the near future a vast majority of our products will be built with carbon based on nanotube molecules. It's that simple. Does this matter? It doesn't if all we do is start using a new material to do the same old things, but that is not how material ages of the past have worked. In the past, the discovery of new materials has transformed civilization because new objects could be created that couldn't be created in the past. I have given one example for carbon, the space elevator. Are there any others? This is hard to predict. This kind of prediction consists of predicting inventions that don't exist yet. I will try.
There are presently some designs for personal flying vehicles that should become common place in the near future. I believe carbon has much to offer to such vehicles since its strength to weight ratio is so high. This matters in flying vehicles because weight hurts when you are trying to stay in the air. Another field which will take off in the future is robotics. Is there any overlap between robotics and carbon? We could make robots out of plastic and steel. We most certainly will as a matter of fact, but carbon will probably be crucial in robotics too. For one thing, it is possible that nanotube based computer processors will replace silicon. It is possible that the brains inside robots will be based on carbon. Will they be structural carbon as well? I think this is likely, for the same reasons that lots of things will be made from carbon. It is strong and lightweight. There are some designs for using nanotubes as a new kind of computer display. These might eventually replace LCD displays in the same way that LCDs are replacing CRTs. We will be able to build much taller buildings with carbon than we could with steel, possibly several miles tall. Carbon will also be used to build bridges as well of course. I will not speculate on this any further, it is quite difficult to imagine inventions of the future. If I am wrong and we don't do anything interesting with carbon aside from replacing plastic and steel, then carbon will not be very interesting, not worthy of an "age", but I seriously doubt this is the case.
We are about to enter a new era in human civilization, one in which technologies we cannot even dream of yet will go from impossible to commonplace. Welcome to the the carbon age.
I would really like to hear what people think of this. If you prefer private feedback, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, the following form and comment section is available.