Stanene, a single layer of tin atoms, is the world's first material to conduct electricity at 100 percent efficiency.
Courtesy of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Stanene, a single layer of tin atoms, is the world's first material to conduct electricity at 100 percent efficiency.

The bleeding edge of science unceasingly drives performance advances. When it comes to material characteristics such as strength, lightness, or reflectance, no limiting threshold seems inviolable. These advances are often incremental in nature, however, never reaching the theoretical performance ceilings dictated by physics or chemistry.

Two recent particular material achievements do just this, however. Hot on the tails of graphene research, scientists at Rice University claim to have discovered the strongest material ever. Carbyne is another allotrope of carbon, comprised of a chain of carbon atoms connected by double or alternating single and triple connections. Unlike graphene or carbon nanotubes, which have two sides, carbyne is considered to be a one-dimensional material with the thickness of one atom. Carbyne is twice as strong as graphene, with three times the tensile stiffness of diamond. Preliminary application ideas include sensors, nanomechanical systems, and energy storage. “Regardless of the applications, academically, it’s very exciting to know the strongest possible assembly of atoms," said theoretical physicist Boris Yakobson in a Rice press release.

Another group of theoretical physicists led by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University has discovered the most conductive material ever. Stanene is a similarly thin material—a single layer of tin atoms whose name is derived from the Latin name stannum (tin) and the suffix used in graphene. According to the scientists, it is the only known material capable of conducting electricity with 100 percent efficiency. "Stanene could increase the speed and lower the power needs of future generations of computer chips, if our prediction is confirmed by experiments that are underway in several laboratories around the world," Stanford physics professor Shoucheng Zhang stated in an SLAC press release.

The discovery of any material that attains an absolute limit is remarkable, but the announcement of two such materials within a six-week period is truly amazing. As researchers develop future applications for carbyne and stanene, what other threshold-defining materials are soon to follow?

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.