Graphene is a hot subject in science right now. It’s a honeycomb sheet of carbon just one atom thick, 200 times stronger than steel, more conductive than copper and can stretch up to 125% of its original length. One day in the not too distant future, it will revolutionize everything. It’s even thought that the all-important tether component in the long-awaited space elevator project will eventually be constructed from graphene.

There are a number of different ways to produce it (using either what’s called a top-down or a bottom-up technique) but most methods currently involve a painstaking and expensive chemical process. However, it’s believed the graphene industry will be worth at least $350 million by 2028. So when researchers at Rice University announced in a paper published in Nature that they had devised a method to make graphene from household refuse, it seemed like a modern-day equivalent to alchemy had been discovered.

The study shows that a split-second, super-hot flash of electricity focused on any item containing carbon — including a plastic water bottle, a worn out rubber tire or even food waste — reorders the carbon atoms to produce graphene. All chemical bonds are broken, forcing all the other elements to escape as gases, leaving behind a super-strong lattice of carbon just one atom thick.

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Author: Scott Snowden, Forbes
Image: NGI/Manchester University