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Chemists find a way to transform trash into wonder material graphene

Rice lab makes pristine graphene in a flash

In medieval Europe, alchemists tried their darndest to transform base metals into so-called “noble” ones, such as gold. Now, in 2020, chemists at Rice University have developed a process that, while not exactly the same, could count as a form of 21st century alchemy. Their work focuses on a method aimed at transforming trash or any large source of carbon into flakes of graphene, the all-around wonder material that promises all kinds of valuable applications.

The “flash graphene” approach is both fast and cheap, and could be used to turn materials as disparate as coal, food waste, or plastic into large quantities of graphene. “[This isn’t] extraction,” James Tour, Rice University professor of materials science and nano-engineering, in addition to computer science, told Digital Trends. “We convert the items into graphene.”

The process developed by the researchers involves heating carbon-containing materials to 3,000 kelvin, or around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This is done incredibly quickly, taking just 10 milliseconds. The source material can be anything with carbon content, ranging from food and plastic waste to things like wood chips and biochar. The hope is that this could greatly reduce the commercial price of graphene, which can currently be up to $200,000 per ton. Not only could this prove to be a useful way of getting rid of waste, but it could also help make graphene more practically versatile, since it makes it less expensive.

“[This has been [proven],” Tour csaid. Next up, he said the researchers plan to scale the process. This will initially be “to kilograms and then tons.” His hope is to be able to produce a kilogram — or 2.2 pounds — of flash graphene per day.

Graphene refers to a single layer of graphite, the soft material that is commonly found in lead. Just one atom thin, it is among the strongest materials in the known universe — boasting 100x the strength of steel, astonishing levels of flexibility, and a host of other unusual properties and abilities that make it incredibly exciting to researchers.

A paper describing this latest piece of work, titled “Gram-scale bottom-up flash graphene synthesis,” was recently published in the journal Nature.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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