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New Process Transforms Waste into Graphene

Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Done in a flash.

One of the reasons we’re encouraged more to recycle these days is that processing lots of miscellaneous garbage takes a lot of time and energy. Food waste in particular seems to just keep piling up, and there’s no trash chute big enough to process all of it. Luckily, a research team from Rice University may have discovered a way to get rid of lots of waste at once while receiving helpful byproducts in the process.

The researchers discovered that graphene, a helpful material that could lessen the environmental impact of building materials like concrete, can be made en masse pretty easily. All you need is a big source of disposable carbon. By exposing a lump of waste to a quick flash of super-hot light, it’s quickly heated down to simple atomic components. You can throw pretty much anything in there; food waste, coal, wood, even plastic. Long as there’s carbon in there, they can flash-fry it.

The process is remarkably cheap and fast. After the waste is heated, it’s safe to touch bare-handed after just a couple of seconds. It doesn’t require a lot of heat or power, and the resulting graphene could be mixed into concrete to lessen its CO2 emissions.

“Essentially, we’re trapping greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane that waste food would have emitted in landfills,” project lead James Tour explains. “We are converting those carbons into graphene and adding that graphene to concrete, thereby lowering the amount of CO2 generated in concrete manufacture. It’s a win-win environmental scenario using graphene.”

The researchers are looking to produce around a kilogram of graphene from waste coal in the next couple of years to demonstrate their process’ potential.

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