Written by Hunter Chan, Zero Waste Logistics Eco-Rep
In the 1960s, the US produced around 100M tons of municipal solid waste (MSW). According to the Environmental Protection Agency figures from 2018, the country has nearly tripled its volume of waste to 292.4M tons. Increasingly, the attention has shifted to food and plastic waste. The EPA reports from that same year revealed that food and plastic waste accounted for 63.1M tons (~21%) and 35.7M tons (~12%), respectively. To make matters worse, it’s estimated that food waste accounts for around 30-40% of all food produced, and nearly 80% of all plastic goes directly to landfill. Considering the levels of wealth, the influences of mass consumerism, and growing populations, it doesn’t seem like the US will start producing less waste anytime soon.
With the incredible growth of interest in sustainability over the last few years, numerous technologies geared toward reducing waste have been developed, and one lab chemist from Rice University might have just found the perfect solution. In 2020, chemist James Tour, accompanied by a team of graduate research students, discovered flash graphene.
Flash graphene is produced by superheating carbon-based materials for a few milliseconds. The (ideal) resulting char is the single-layered atom sheets of graphene – an incredibly versatile and strong material. What makes the technology so impressive is its speed, affordability (compared to previous graphene production methods), and the fact that it can address over 30% of MSW in America. As previously mentioned, this process can be used for most carbon-based waste including food, wood, rubber, and even plastic. When the material is flash-heated, the carbon contained doesn’t re-enter the air, and the previous physical footprint is significantly decreased. Even if the flash graphene didn’t have any uses, this would allow for significant space savings and a reduction of landfill use, but the applications of flash graphene are where it gets exciting.
Because of its extreme strength, flash graphene would serve very well as a structural additive. Building materials including plastics, metals, plywood, and concrete could all benefit. Early tests showed as little as 0.1% of flash graphene content used in cement to bind traditional concrete could lead to leaps in its strength, thus reducing all emissions associated with producing and using concrete. Flash graphene also exhibits great conductivity, which could lead to applications in lights, phones, batteries, and countless other electronics.
Now, the challenge is scaling. Understanding the implications of mass production are always complicated. Large-scale replication of lab-produced flash graphene may still be very expensive considering its developmental nature, and of course, means of quality control will take time to develop as well. The pandemic period certainly didn’t do any favors for the technology to develop, but the labs at Rice are still refining the applications of flash graphene. This flash-heating technology continues to pave an exciting path for the future of sustainability, and will hopefully be making a more widespread impact in the next few years.