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Could the Open-Source Model Help Us Develop Advanced Sustainable Materials?

Don Basile headshotWords by Don Basile
Data & Technology

Image: A researcher experiments with the advanced nanomaterial graphene. 

The open-source model paved the way for significant advancements in the fields of software and programming, and has positively affected industries such as medicine, engineering and even fashion, among others. The success of open-source methods brings to light the potential for its implementation in other areas.

For instance, advanced raw materials under development—such as the 2-D wonder material graphene—could greatly benefit from the widespread experimentation of open-source use. In its current state, graphene is primarily researched by scientists in universities and labs, but by making graphene a material that is open to be improved upon by anyone, we might see the fulfillment of the potential that the nanomaterial has been hailed for since its discovery.

What is open-source?

Open-source is a model of development that focuses on decentralization and allows for open collaboration on projects. Typically, the open-source model is used for software development: A program’s source code can be made publicly available for modification, where individual users can make changes to the code and share it with others. The prevalence of software in our technological society makes open-sourcing highly conducive to progress.

The concept of open-source was conceived as the first computers were created in the 1950s and '60s. Computers were initially used by universities for academic and research purposes. As a result, the attitude around sharing source code was a natural reflection of the academic mentality: focused on openness, cooperation and sharing of knowledge.

Open-source sharing saw a decline in the 1970s and '80s, as technology companies instead opted to create proprietary software instead of open-sourcing. In 1989, programmer and activist Richard Stallman successfully implemented the GNU General Public License, the first “copyleft” license. This ensured that software source codes under the license would be made publically available, along with any subsequent iterations made by users.

This new framework paved the way for open-source methods to enter the mainstream: The open-source trend gained popularity during the dot-com boom of the late '90s and quickly took its place in our modern society. During this time, the term “open-source” was created. Used for software as early as Linux to as recent as Android, open-source softwares have defined our technology for the past 20 years.

The benefits of open-source and what it can do for materials like graphene

The collaborative nature of open-source coding has significantly boosted our software capabilities in a short span of time. Open-sourcing allows companies to avoid starting from scratch by using already existing softwares and modifying them for their own purposes. This saves time and resources and gives companies more room to experiment and accelerate their advancements. Open-source methods help achieve a broader scope of innovation, since the people researching and tinkering are not limited to the professionals in the lab, but can now include hobbyists or aspiring scientists looking to get more involved.

This level of experimentation could take emerging materials like graphene beyond their current limits. Graphene’s capabilities are staggering—it is essentially two-dimensional, flexible, 200 times stronger than steel, conducts heat 10 times better than copper, and conducts electricity 250 times better than silicon. Its abilities are far-reaching and extremely potent, making graphene applications nearly endless.

As it stands, graphene research is limited to a select few technology companies. Samsung, for instance, has the most graphene patents to date. Otherwise, most of graphene research is done in university labs. In the same way that open-sourcing has built up software and related technologies, open-sourcing could also viably allow a wider range of individuals and communities to help unlock graphene’s unrealized potential.

Limitations of open-source for materials

Materials like graphene are fundamentally different from software in that they are physical resources. Since graphene’s discovery, quantity has been a serious issue preventing the material from seeing widespread use. Natural reserves of graphene are few and far between, and while scientists have discovered ways to produce graphene, the methods have proved unscalable. 

And how would the average user even experiment with such a material? For those who don’t have the same equipment researchers do, how can they go about tinkering with graphene? In order for raw materials like graphene to become open-source, a solution for these two problems must be found.

Mass production and 3-D printing: Solutions for open-source graphene

However, the solutions may be closer at hand than you might think. Recently, MIT researchers discovered a potentially scalable way to mass-produce graphene. They utilize an industrial manufacturing process known as a roll-to-roll method, combined with a chemical vapor deposition (a common way for researchers to create graphene). The researchers were able to produce a graphene foil at 5 centimeters per minute. After their machine had run for four hours, they had produced 10 meters of graphene.

If this process continues to prove viable, we may begin to see the mass production of graphene become a reality—which could pave the way for ultra-durable products that stay in use longer and produce less waste. 

For issues of experimentation, 3-D printers are increasingly becoming capable of filling the role. The cost of 3-D printers have been steadily decreasing as they become more capable. And 3-D printing software is also beginning to see a shift toward open-source methods as opposed to the proprietary angle that dominated the early 3-D printing industry.

One of the most important aspects of 3-D printing is the material used to create objects. 3-D printers are capable of using a number of materials, including plastic polymers, metal and even wood. Recently, researchers at Virginia Tech University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have been experimenting with 3-D printing with graphene printing. They successfully created 3-D graphene aerogels and foams that can be shaped to suit various needs. Graphene is an essentially 2-D material, so the ability to craft it into a three-dimensional form opens up the current possibilities for the material, extending beyond the membrane technology upon which many researchers and companies have focused.

The capabilities to mass-produce graphene and utilize it for 3-D printing make it possible for open-source sharing on the material to come to fruition. With mass production techniques, graphene will be available for anyone to experiment. In addition, its usage in 3-D printers can drive key discoveries or innovations that could lead to graphene’s full utilization in our products.

If we are able to use graphene as an open-source material, there’s no telling where the wonder material could take us. And introducing open-source to new sectors may well pave the way for even greater innovation we can't even imagine today. 

Image credit: Rede Galega de Biomateriais/Flickr

Don Basile headshotDon Basile

Don Basile is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience in the technology, healthcare, and telecommunications industries.  He has written for publications including TechCrunch, Forbes, and The Next Web, as well as his personal website.

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