This video shows how, just by rearranging some carbon atoms, a $5 box of Girl Scout cookies becomes a $15 billion hunk of industrial material. In fact, rearranging the atoms of just about any old carbon source — including a standard pencil lead — into thin sheets of carbon atoms called graphene can turn a pretty serious profit.

Graphene, which was first extracted in sheets by Nobel Laureates Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov in 2004, has received a lot of attention in recent years in light of its many potential applications in everything from solar energy harvesting to biomedicine. Consequently, the commercial rate for a two-inch square sheet of graphene is on the order of 250 dollars. For reference, the graduate students in Rice University chemist James Tour's lab estimated that a box of shortbread cookies contains enough carbon to produce close to thirty football fields worth of graphene.

The demonstration given in the video up top was put on for a Girl Scout troop by graduate students in Tour's lab. Like many great feats of science, the impetus for the demonstration began with a dare:

I said we could grow [graphene] from any carbon source — for example, a Girl Scout cookie, because Girl Scout Cookies were being served at the time...so one of the people in the room said, 'Yes, please do it...let's see that happen.'

So it happened. But Tour and his grad students didn't stop there. The lab group has just published a paper in ACS Nano demonstrating their ability to produce graphene from any number of carbon sources, including chocolate, grass, dog feces, and even a cockroach leg.

How to turn a box of girl scout cookies into 15 billion dollars

The image on the left, taken from the lab's recent publication, illustrates the basic concept behind generating graphene. A solid source of carbon is placed on a sheet of copper foil. The copper and carbon source are inserted into a low pressure furnace flowing with argon and hydrogen gases at temperatures between 800 and 1050 degrees Celsius. Over the course of 15 to 20 minutes, the solid carbon source decomposes, and graphene forms on the side of the foil opposite to the original carbon source. The leftover residues remain on the original side of the copper sheet. Bingo — graphene.

I really need to find one of those hydrogen/argon super-ovens.


Research via ACS Nano