Pressing Questions for Chemist and Cookie Guru James Tour

By Valerie Ross|Wednesday, October 05, 2011
RELATED TAGS: MATERIALS SCIENCE
jtour
jtour
illustration by Zina Saunders

This summer you and your colleagues at Rice University made a splash when you published a paper about turning shortbread Girl Scout cookies into graphene, a high-tech material that holds promise for flexible displays and high-speed circuits.

Why this unusual experiment?

Graphene is just an atom-thick layer of carbon, but it’s strong enough to support the weight of an elephant. Someone actually did the math on that. Trouble is, it costs about $250 per square inch. It’s made from purified carbon in an expensive process. We wanted to show that it could be made from anything. Carbon is carbon, whether it comes from a cockroach leg, dog feces, or Girl Scout cookies.

Why not Thin Mints?

Shortbread is mostly sugar [and starch]. The other cookies have more noncarbon ingredients like salt and iron.

How long did the transformation take?

Less than 10 minutes. We put just a few crumbs on a sheet of copper foil, inserted that into a temperature-safe quartz tube, and heated it to 1000˚C. The heat breaks sugar down into carbon, and voilà! Graphene.

If it’s so simple, why isn’t there a run on Girl Scout cookies?

For small amounts, the difference in price between pure sources of carbon and cookies is small; but if you scale up production, that difference becomes absolutely critical. When graphene winds up in every cell phone and computer on the planet, I think people will come to rely on any kind of carbon-rich material.

This isn’t your first 
buzz-worthy experiment, correct?

In 2000, I told government defense analysts that a chemical terrorist attack would be too easy, but no one listened. So I asked my students to forge my signature and go shopping. Within 24 hours they had enough chemicals to make several nerve agents and kill 50,000 people. All of a sudden I was presenting this before the CIA. As far as I know there was no change in legislation.

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