Back in the day, by which I mean the late 1980s and into the early 1990s when I started my career as a science journalist, it was the fullerenes that were rolling on to the chemistry news pages thick and fast. The discovery of these cage-like carbon molecules in soot and other (apparently) unlikely (but actually quite obvious) places filled many a column-inch in the days even before the world wide web and certainly before I started my own first website in 1995, which in hindsight I can now see was a chemistry blog before the word web log, 'blog, had been coined. But, enough of my prescience.

There were a few chemists around who had been trying to construct proto-fullerenes for years before the easy routes came along. They started with polyaromatic hydrocarbons, coronenes, anthracenes and the like and imagined chemically pinning them together, from the bottom up, so that they could curl them up first into buckybowls and then into spherical and spheroidal C60, C70, C120 (Go!) structures. I am sure there still is at least one team pursuing a more efficient total synthesis of buckminsterfullerene even to this day, although a high-temperature, flash vacuum pyrolysis, multiple step approach was reported in 2002. Of course, intellectually a total synthesis is a neat target to aim for, but the cons of this particular convoluted approach far outweigh the pros when compared to the much simpler graphite electrodes approach used to make fullerenes.

But, not long after the buckyballs, chemistry rolled on developing the carbon nanotubes which kicked out the buckyballs and these materials became the darlings of grant-grabbing headlines for several years. Until graphene. If the materials promise of the fullerenes and then the carbon nanotubes was astounding, then the hyperbole of this new wonder material kicked them both into touch. There seems to be little that graphene cannot do, few properties with which it cannot be associated, and no technology that it could not revolutionize from molecular electronics to water filters. It is almost a chemical panacea for every technological ailment. Of course, whether graphene ever lives up to its headline hype remains to be seen.

Now, it seems we have come full circle, a research "letter" published this week in Nature Nanotechnology M F Crommie et al, 2015 DOI: 10.1038/nnano.2014.307] discusses how to construct shaped graphene units from the "bottom up", perhaps from the 1959 Feynman sense of perspective in which he suggested a future of nanotechnology because he saw that, "there's plenty of room at the bottom".

The letter discusses how "graphene-based molecular electronics has emerged as a candidate to enable high performance down to the single-molecule scale," and that "graphene nanoribbons, for example, can have widths of less than 2 nanometers and band gaps that are tunable via their width and symmetry." It seems obvious that a bottom-up synthesis of such structures would allow materials scientists and others to build semiconductor hetero junctions for future sub-microelectronic devices. In this context a "total synthesis" is perhaps not quite the non-sequitur  it perhaps was when we discussed the total synthesis of the fullerenes back in the day. Techniques have moved on in a quarter of a century, one has to hope, as too have the needs of those hoping to develop carbon as the natural successor to silicon in the realm of electronics and computing. We shall see. If I'm still "blogging" or whatever they fancy calling it in 2040, I'll maybe send you an update via our intracranial communicators.

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".