By Philip Ball

Until the 19th century we had to rely almost entirely on nature for the fabrics from which we built our world. Not until the 1850s was steelmaking a science, and the advent of the first synthetic polymers — celluloid and vulcanised rubber — around the same time, followed later by Bakelite, ushered in the era of synthetic materials.

As the 1951 Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit showed, there were mixed feelings about this mastery of manmade materials. The ads might promise strength and durability, but the economy relies on replacement. When, four years later, synthetic diamond was announced by General Electric, some felt that nature had been usurped.

“Miracle materials” can still grab headlines and conjure up utopian visions, as graphene reveals. This ultra-tough, ultra-thin form of carbon, just one atom thick and made of sheets of carbon atoms linked, chicken-wire fashion, into arrays of hexagons, has been sold as the next big thing: the future of electronics and touch-screens, a flexible fabric for smart clothing, and the electrodes of energy storage devices. It’s a British discovery (sort of), and Finance Minister George Osborne has announced £22mn funding for commercialising graphene, the isolation of which won the 2010 Nobel prize in physics for two physicists at the University of Manchester.

It would be madness to carp about that. But let’s keep it in perspective: this investment will be a drop in the ocean if a pan-European graphene project currently bidding for a €1bn pot from the European Union, to be decided early in 2013, is successful. All the same, it’s serious money, and those backing graphene have got a lot to live up to.

It’s not obvious that they will. With an illustrious history of materials innovation, Britain is well placed to put this carbon gossamer to work. But overseas giants such as Samsung and Nokia are already staking out that territory, and China is making inroads too.

Perhaps more to the point, graphene might not be all it is talked up to be. The idea that all our microchips will soon be based on carbon rather than silicon circuits looks particularly dodgy, since it remains all but impossible to switch graphene transistors fully off. They leak, leading one expert to call graphene a material “an electronics designer would not touch with a 10ft pole”. Even optimists don’t forecast the graphene computer any time soon.

But here graphene is perhaps a victim of its own success: it’s such strange, interesting stuff that there’s almost a collective cultural wish to believe it can do anything. That’s the curse of the “miracle material”, and we have plastics to blame for it.

Before plastics, materials tended to have specific, specialised uses, and their flaws were all too evident. Steel was strong but heavy, stone hard but brittle. Leather and wood rotted. But plastics? Stronger than steel, hard, soft, eternal, biodegradable, insulating, conductive, sticky, non-stick, they tethered oil rigs and carried shopping. They got us used to the idea that a single fabric can be all things to all people. As a result, each new material is expected to multitask.

High-temperature superconductors, which nabbed a Nobel in 1987, would give us Maglev trains and loss-free power lines. Carbon nanotubes (a sort of tubular graphene discovered in 1991) would anchor a space elevator and transform microelectronics. These things haven’t materialised, partly because it is extremely hard to secure a mass market overnight for hi-tech, expensive new materials, especially when that means displacing older, established materials. They are instead finding their own limited niche. Graphene will do the same. But miracle materials? They don’t exist. — Guardian News & Media

 Philip Ball is author of Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything