IRA FLATOW, HOST:
How much did you pay for that last box of Girl Scout cookies you bought? Five bucks, six maybe, maybe more? How about $15 billion? That's the price of a single box if - if it were turned into graphine. Researchers at Rice University in Houston have discovered a way to turn anything with carbon into graphine, the super-strong wonder material that can be worth over two million times the price of gold. You heard that right, two million times.
Forget alchemy, that's for chumps. This is graphene, worth a lot more in its weight of gold. Marc Abrahams, editor and founder of the Annals of Improbable Research is here to tell us why graphene is so pricey and what this invention could mean for nanotechnology. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
MARC ABRAHAMS: Thanks, Ira, nice to be back.
FLATOW: So what is this thing about turning Girl Scout cookies into graphene?
ABRAHAMS: All right, we'll start with a little reminder about graphene. Graphene is just a form of carbon. It's a form of carbon people knew existed, but just about eight or so years ago, for the first time, people were able to get enough of it to actually look at it. It's the two-dimensional form. It's like a big sheet of chicken wire, that's the shape, and it's really hard to get.
The guys who figured it out did it in a goofy way, using pencil and scotch tape. When you write with a pencil, that stuff that comes off, that graphite, that's really sheets, and sheets and sheets of this thin stuff. But separating those, that was expensive.
The numbers you've tossed around show you how expensive. People have been able to do experiments. They've found all kinds of really interesting possibly valuable properties, but nothing, no industry is really going to start until they can make enough of this stuff cheaply to use it.
Until now, most of the ways of making it started with this first step: Get some really pure, really expensive chemicals that you're going to mix in and do the next stuff. Huge expense. What Jim Tour down in Houston discovered and showed is that anything that's got carbon in it you can turn into graphene.
And to demonstrate that he meant anything, he did it with Girl Scout cookies. He turned those into graphene. He did it with chocolate. He got some chocolate half-dollar coins. He did it with dog feces from a miniature Dachshund, and he did it with a cockroach leg. And essentially he just got a really big oven, heated it up to about 1,000 degrees C and filled that oven with a little bit of this stuff, the cockroach or the dog feces, whatever, and a sheet of pure copper and a little bit of gas, left it for about 20 minutes, and viola, he'd made little bits of really high-quality graphene.
ABRAHAMS: He was making still little, tiny amounts. It's still really expensive. But if you just do out the little numbers from it, from the amount he made, if you could convert all of the cookies in a standard box of Girl Scout cookies, if you could convert all the carbon in them into graphene - when he did this a year and a half ago, that would be worth about $15 billion.
FLATOW: Are those...?
ABRAHAMS: (Unintelligible) today, now it's - the technique have gotten better. So now it would only be worth about $12 billion.
FLATOW: Are those the thin mints?
ABRAHAMS: No, these were the shortbread. But you could do it with thin mints.
FLATOW: What a waste of those thin mints - they wouldn't last long in my kitchen.
ABRAHAMS: Well yeah, so you're just throwing away money when you do that, Ira.
FLATOW: Can anybody do this? And this being adopted and adapted by commercial industry?
ABRAHAMS: Well, anybody with a little equipment could do it. The thing is, it's still not easy, and it's still really expensive because you can only make - right now they only know how to make really, really, really tiny amounts. But the big thing he was trying to show is you don't have to start with really expensive feed stocks, is the chemical term.
You can make this stuff from anything. So once people figure out their techniques a little bit better, the prospects for a huge drop in price are great. Now of course there are other problems with this stuff. There's not enough of it that people have figured a lot of the technical problems. Like if you make electronics from graphene, it has all these beautiful properties. But if you make them, you've got to connect them to wires.
And the connector problem, you know, just in a way it's a version of when you plug something into your computer, how do you connect it. How do you connect something to a sheet of carbon that's one atom thick so that it's reliable and does what you want it to? People are working on that. That's still a mystery.
FLATOW: Yeah, that's why they work there, and I work here.
ABRAHAMS: But someday.
FLATOW: Someday. Thank you, Mark, fascinating...
does what you want it to? People are working on that.
ABRAHAMS: That's still a mystery.
FLATOW: Yeah. That's why they work there and I work here. Thank...
ABRAHAMS: Yup. Someday.
FLATOW: Yeah, someday. Thank you, Marc. Fascinating as always.
ABRAHAMS: OK. We'll see you.
FLATOW: Marc Abrahams, editor and founder of the Annals of Improbable Research. He's also the founder and master of ceremonies - excuse me - at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies that you hear every year the Friday after Thanksgiving right here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.