Graphene, the much-lauded super material, can now be produced in bulk by using waste food, plastic and other materials. With all manner of potential applications, graphene is widely accepted to be the thinnest, lightest and strongest known material on earth, as well as being the best conductor of heat and electricity thus far discovered. A new process introduced by the Rice University lab of chemist James Tour can turn bulk quantities of most carbon-based sources into flakes of graphene.
The process, according to Rice University, is quick, cheap and scalable. The “flash graphene” technique can covert a ton of coal, food waste or plastic into graphene for a fraction of the cost used by other bulk graphene-producing methods.
“This is a big deal,” explains Tour. “The world throws out 30-40 per cent of all food, because it goes bad, and plastic waste is of worldwide concern. We’ve already proven that any solid carbon-based matter, including mixed plastic waste and rubber tires, can be turned into graphene.”
As reported in Nature, flash graphene is made in 10 milliseconds by heating carbon-containing materials to 3,000 Kelvin. The source material can be nearly anything with carbon content. Food waste, plastic waste, petroleum coke, coal, wood clippings and biochar are all prime candidates.
“With the present commercial price of graphene being $67,000 to $200,000 per ton, the prospects for this process look superb,” continues Tour.
The process also has the ability to dramatically reduce the negative environmental impact of waste. “Essentially, we’re trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that waste food would have emitted in landfills…It’s a win-win environmental scenario using graphene,” comments Tour.
“Turning trash to treasure is key to the circular economy,” explains Rouzbeh Shahsavari, an adjunct assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice and president of C-Crete Technologies. “Here, graphene acts both as a 2D template and a reinforcing agent [for building materials].”
An additional benefit of the flash graphene process is that it produces a particular type of graphene called “turbostatic graphene” with misaligned layers that are easy to separate. Turbostatic graphene is much easier to work with because the adhesion between its layers is much lower. They come apart in a solution and are easy to blend with composites.
Bulk composites of graphene with plastic, metals, plywood, concrete and other building materials would be a major market for flash graphene, according to the researchers, who are already testing graphene-enhanced concrete and plastic.
While the use of graphene in the superyacht world may sound far-fetched to some, it has already been to be introduced to the aerospace and automotive markets. However, with the new flash graphene method’s potential to make the purchase and use of graphene cheaper, we may start to see the material become an increasingly large part of superyacht design and engineering. Potential applications include lighter and stronger building materials, building materials and soft furnishings that store energy, incredibly efficient solar panels, solar aerogels and ultra-efficient batteries – to name but a few.
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