Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Graphene is cool stuff. The single-atom thick layer of carbon has a number of properties that make it almost endlessly useful. Because of all the neat tricks it can do, it’s popularly dubbed a “wonder material,” but over a decade and a half after it was first isolated, the only thing I’m wondering is: where it is?! Turns out the stuff is really hard to make in useful quantities, but a recent breakthrough from researchers at Rice University promises to make large amounts of graphene in a flash from your trash. For those of you watching your first episode of Seeker ever, (congrats, welcome, hi) graphene looks like this. This is what I call a graph-ic. Anyway, it’s not much to look at—it kind of resembles chicken wire. But this honeycomb lattice of carbon can do some amazing things. It is one of the thinnest, strongest, and most conductive materials we have ever discovered. Its strength can be used to make other materials stronger. Its amazing conductivity could help us make energy-dense batteries or efficient heat sinks. Its flexibility could make wearable electronics and bendable displays. You get the idea—do I really need to keep going? Which is why it is so frustrating that it’s so hard to make in large amounts. Ironic, considering it was first isolated by applying a piece of sticky tape like you might have in your home to a block of graphite and peeling it off, then resticking and peeling the tape apart until you’re left with thin flakes. It’s like it’s taunting us. But there’s a reason we don’t have armies of people just peeling tape apart. The graphene that this technique produces is still a few layers thick, and we're after that single-atom-thick goodness. As of right now, the prevailing methods to achieve that usually involve assembling it on sheets of copper, then using plastics and chemicals to get it off. But the process is slow, expensive and not environmentally friendly. A piece of 60mm x 40 mm monolayer graphene on copper will cost you about $172. But what if we’re overthinking this? What if we could just take any old carbon source and zap it to make graphene? As far as I can tell, that’s basically the line of thinking the researchers from Rice University followed. The process they developed involves charging up high-voltage capacitors with electricity, then unleashing it all at once into just about any carbon-containing material. Anything from coal, which is basically all carbon to start with, to plastics, to food waste. The current passes through the target material, heating it to over 3,000 Kelvin and breaking every carbon-to-carbon bond in the process. The non-carbon elements sublime out, while the carbon atoms rearrange themselves as graphene. Excess energy is dispersed as light, so researchers dubbed the product “flash graphene.” The change can take as little as ten milliseconds. Not only does this produce a gram of graphene quickly and cheaply; it also makes a particular kind of graphene called turbostratic graphene. Unlike A-B stacked graphene, which has orderly layers that are hard to pry apart, the layers of turbostratic graphene have no ordered alignment. This means they can be easily separated using solvents or inside composite materials. Now, this process doesn’t make large sheets of graphene, just small flakes. So it may not be the breakthrough that leads to flexible screens you can put on a T-shirt. But it still has some very useful—albeit less flashy—applications. The researchers envision flash graphene being added to concrete, and estimate that just a fraction of a percent of graphene added in could boost cement’s strength by 35%. That translates to less building material needed, saving costs and lessening the environmental impact. Flash graphene could be an ecological double win, because it can be made with recycled plastic or food waste, or it could be an alternative use for cheap coal that doesn’t involve burning it and releasing CO2. The Department of Energy thinks turning coal into graphene looks promising, and are funding the research with the goal of producing a kilogram of flash graphene a day within two years. I know we’re all clamoring for graphene to take the world by storm, but the reality is that it’ll take incremental steps like this to bring this wonder material into our daily lives. It’s already showing up in places that are hard to spot, like inside headphones and the coating of motorcycle helmets. Now thanks to this new work, it may soon show up in our buildings, too. And the only way you might be able to tell is if you measured the thickness of the walls, or noticed there was suddenly a lot less plastic and banana peels lying around. One of the lead researchers from Rice, James Tour, started experimenting with making graphene out of odd sources because of a bet in 2011 when a colleague challenged him to make it out of, among other things, cockroaches and dog poop. Thanks for watching, if you like this video you can check out more like it, like this one on angled graphene, and subscribe for even more videos. I’ll see you next time on Seeker.