Table sugar, that bane of nutritionists everywhere, may be on the verge of redeeming itself. A team of researchers at Rice University has found that ordinary table sugar can be manipulated to form sheets of graphene. Something of a new miracle material, graphene could be used to create a new generation of electronic devices that use far less energy and take up far less space, too. If the sugar-to-graphene process proves commercially viable, that would give sugar a critical role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving resources in our increasingly electronics-reliant world.
Graphene and Next-Generation Electronics
Graphene was discovered just a few years ago and it is already shaping up to transform the foundations of electronics design and manufacturing. That’s because graphene occurs in sheets only one atom thick, opening the potential for creating devices that are much smaller, lighter, faster and more energy efficient than anything on the market today. However, that will take some additional development. One stumbling block has been manipulating graphene into usable forms. Another has been manufacturing graphene on a commercial scale, and that’s where the new Rice research comes in.
From Sugar to Graphene
The Rice breakthrough in graphene manufacturing is notable not only for its use of a common, non-toxic material, but also because it can be accomplished in one step, at a relatively low temperature. The researchers spun carbon-rich materials such as Plexiglass onto a nickel or copper substrate. When exposed to hydrogen and argon gas, the metal acted as a catalyst, and the material reduced to pure carbon and produced a single layer of graphene. Eventually the researchers tried other carbon sources and found that plain sugar did the trick.
Graphene and the U.S. Military
A new generation of lightweight graphene-based equipment could help resolve a key logistical problem that has developed as military operations grow increasingly reliant on electronic devices, which have posed an increasingly heavy burden on troops in the field. It’s no surprise, then, that the Rice research was supported jointly by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Office of Naval Research.
Image: Sugar by Uwe Hermann on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.