Rice University chemist James Tour has won a Royal Society of Chemistry Centenary Prize. The award, given annually to up to three scientists from outside Great Britain, recognizes researchers for their contributions to the chemical sciences industry or education and for successful collaborations. Tour was named for innovations in materials chemistry with applications in medicine and nanotechnology.
The prestigious award, established in 1947, comes with a 5,000-pound (about $6,260) cash prize and a medal. Winners are invited to undertake a lecture tour of the United Kingdom, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed that until 2021.
Additional winners this year are Teri Odom, the chair and Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University, and Eric Anslyn, the Welch Regents Chair and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Tour is the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice.
“Receiving the Royal Society of Chemistry 2020 Centenary Prize is an enormous honor,” Tour said. “The award recognizes the accomplishments of my research group over a period of 32 years. I am greatly indebted to a host of students, postdocs and collaborators that have carried the weight of this research endeavor.
“We have sought to use chemistry to extend the boundaries of new materials development for use in medicine, electronic devices, nano-enhanced structures and renewable energy platforms,” he said. “It is a joy to realize the work done by this array of people in and with my laboratory has afforded such advances that are being recognized by this Centenary Prize.”
Work by Tour and his group in recent years includes the development of versatile laser-induced graphene, flash graphene from waste material, light-activated nanodrills that destroy cancer cells and “superbug” bacteria, silicon-oxide memory circuits that have flown on the International Space Station, the development of graphene quantum dots from coal, asphalt-based materials to capture carbon dioxide from gas wells, and the use of nanoparticles to quench damaging superoxides after an injury or stroke.
“We live in an era of tremendous global challenges, with the need for science recognized now more so than ever — so it is important to recognize those behind the scenes who are making significant contributions towards improving the world we live in,” said acting Royal Society of Chemistry chief executive Helen Pain. “In recognizing the work of Professor Tour, we are also recognizing the important contribution this incredible network of scientists makes to improve our lives every day.”
These are scary times, aren't they? First and foremost, my thoughts and prayers go out to anyone who is directly affected by the current global crisis caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. It's an extremely serious issue that will require worldwide cooperation to overcome.
I have very clear and distinct memories of the previous SARS epidemic. In March 2003, while working at Rice University, I was helping to lead a group of ~50 science and engineering students on an overseas study trip to Hong Kong and Singapore with my former Rice colleague, Dr. Cheryl Matherly (who is now at Lehigh University). We were caught in the middle of the rapidly developing crisis and our travel itinerary had us departing Singapore for Hong Kong on the day the Singapore government warned its own citizens not to travel to Hong Kong!
Fortunately, everyone in our student group made it through that experience safely, and as unsettling as it was, the current situation is much much worse, with as yet unknown - but sure to be significant - social, economic and political ramifications that will most definitely impact future generations around the world.
I am currently based in Bangkok, Thailand, which is a global tourist destination. While we were fortunately to escape the first wave of of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that emanated from China, we're now faced with a second wave imported from Europe. We're not quite under total lockdown here, but things appear to be headed in that direction. It is clear to me form observation that the several governments in the region (Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, to be specific) are applying the lessons they learned from the previous SARS epidemic to help control the current pandemic. This give me hope, and the circumstances in general have given me plenty of time to think and reflect about what - if anything - I and my company, planarTECH, can do to improve this situation.
Graphene: The "Wonder Material"
I was lucky to fall into the world of graphene and 2D materials by accident through acquaintance with another former Rice University colleague, Dr. James Tour, and conversations I had with him 8 years ago. I will not spend a lot of time here talking about the specific properties of graphene as such information is widely available. The European Union's Graphene Flagship project, for example, has an excellent overview. The University of Manchester - where graphene was first isolated and where planarTECH's Chairman, Ray Gibbs, currently serves as the Director of Commercialization for the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre - also has a fantastic YouTube channel with many instructive videos about graphene and its properties.
With all of the amazing properties of graphene, the question is, can it offer any kind of solution to the current pandemic and global crisis?
Academic Work: Graphene's Antiviral Properties
The short answer to the question above is "possibly," but with some caveats. In particular, it would appear that graphene oxide (GO) may play a role in providing a solution.
I should say that I am not a doctor, an epidemiologist or someone with formal training in the biological sciences. I am an engineer by trade, and for the last 8 years, an entrepreneur in the field of graphene. However, since entering the graphene industry, I have grown accustomed to reading academic papers in order to understand the potential applications for graphene.
A paper published in 2015 by researchers at the Huazhong Agricultural University (ironically located in Wuhan, China, where the current pandemic originated) explored the antiviral properties of graphene oxide, and the authors of the paper concluded "that GO and rGO exhibit broad-spectrum antiviral activity toward both DNA virus (PRV) and RNA virus (PEDV) at a noncytotoxic concentration," and that "the broad-spectrum antiviral activity of GO and rGO may shed some light on novel virucide development." While encouraging, it should be noted that the researchers looked specifically at pseudorabies virus (PRV) and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV), not the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the current global pandemic.
Another paper published in 2017 by researchers at Southwest University in China looked at cyclodextrin functionalized graphene oxide and it's possible role in combatting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), concluding that "the curcumin loaded functional GO was confirmed with highly efficient inhibition for RSV infection and great biocompatibility to the host cells." Likewise, a third paper published in 2019 by researchers at Sichuan Agricultural University in China demonstrated that "GO/HY [graphene oxide/hypericin] has antiviral activity against NDRV [novel duck reovirus] both in vitro and in vivo."
The conclusion we can draw from these works is that graphene oxide may offer a platform to fight a variety of viral infections (such as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus), possibly as some form of coating, though certainly more work needs to be done.
(Note that my good friends over at The Graphene Council had a recent and excellent blog post covering the same 3 articles in a little more detail. And kudos to them for shining light on the topic before me!)
Productization: From Lab to Market
If there's one thing I've learned from the past 8 years being involved with graphene commercialization (and the past 14 years working directly in the Asian supply chain) is that it is one matter to write an excellent academic paper as a proof-of-concept, but it is an entirely different matter to take work from an academic lab and turn it into a real product.
With respect to graphene in general, what we are seeing today is definite movement on the Gartner hype cycle from the Trough of Disillusionment to the Slope of Enlightenment. Real products using graphene are now on the market. One such example is the recent announcement of of a collaboration between UK-based Haydale Graphene Industries plc and Korea-based ICRAFT Co., Ltd. that results in the release of a graphene cosmetic face mask. And I am pleased to be able to say that - in connection with my previous responsibilities for Haydale's Asia-Pacific operations - I had some role (together with my colleague Yong-jae "James" Ji) in getting this product off the ground and into the marketplace.
While this may seem like a trivial accomplishment given the context and seriousness of the current global pandemic, I offer this example as proof that graphene can be utilized in an everyday, cost-sensitive product, and it is not such a great conceptual leap to go from a cosmetic face mask to a protective face mask, which as we all know are in great demand these days (especially here in Asia). I would invite iCRAFT (or anyone else) to consider collaboration with planarTECH to develop such a product. (Above photo courtesy of Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash.)
Productization: Existing Products?
Very much related to this topic and very curious is a recent public announcement by LIGC Applications of its Guardian G-Volt face mask with a graphene-based filtration system. However, my understanding is that LIGC is not employing graphene specifically for it's potential antiviral properties but rather for its potential to enhance a filtration system, including (due to graphene's electrical conductivity) the ability to pass an electrical charge through the mask that "would repel any particles trapped in the graphene mask."
What I find very curious about this case is that subsequent to this announcement, LIGC's Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which was live, has now been placed under review, and the company's pitch video on YouTube has likewise been made private. I do not know what has happened here - perhaps is was perceived as poor timing? - but as a fellow entrepreneur who is conducting my own crowdfunding campaign, I wish LIGC the best of luck with its product development and ultimate launch. I definitely want to see more viable graphene products in the marketplace.
The Graphene Supply Chain: planarTECH's Role
One of the challenges the graphene industry faces overall is scalability. Very few graphene companies today (if any at all) can produce graphene at the scale, at the right cost, and with the consistent quality such that it can be used for truly high-volume applications. Over the past 8 years, I have met numerous customers, mostly in Asia, who want to use graphene in their products but cannot find a secure and stable supply that meets their expectations on specification, volume, and price.
At planarTECH we're interested in not only the end applications, but also in solving this problem of production scalability. While we have in the past mainly been focused on production systems for graphene and other 2D materials by Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD), we also recently started offering continuous flow production systems for graphene oxide, which we believe can take graphene oxide production from lab-scale, high-cost (grams per week) to production-scale, low-cost (kilograms per hour). We're actively seeking partners to work with us on setting up production and exploration of the application space for graphene oxide, and we're currently conducting a crowdfunding campaign on Seedrs to help us expand our business and make graphene a commercial reality. As seen above, we think graphene oxide's antiviral properties can be exploited to make new and useful products.
I should clarify and caution that planarTECH is not in the position today to offer a graphene-based product that can immediately help alleviate current crisis and prevent widespread infection. Unfortunately, such a product is realistically 1-2 years away. But what we can offer is market expertise specific to graphene, production technologies, and experience in taking products from the idea phase to a reality in the marketplace.
Conclusion: Graphene is a Possible Solution
To conclude, I would like to reiterate a few broad points.
• Graphene (graphene oxide in particular) and coatings made from graphene would appear to have antiviral properties as reported in several published academic papers.
• Real commercial products exist that use graphene, but the industry as a whole still faces challenges around scalability, cost and quality.
• An immediate graphene-based solution to alleviate the effects of the global SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic is likely unrealistic, but could be possible in the future.
• planarTECH has a role in the supply chain and is seeking partners, as well as investors via its crowdfunding campaign, to expand its business and help end customers develop useful products.
A new process introduced by the Rice University lab of chemist James Tour can turn bulk quantities of just about any carbon source into valuable graphene flakes. The process is quick and cheap; Tour said the “flash graphene” technique can convert a ton of coal, waste food or plastic into graphene for a fraction of the cost used by other bulk graphene-producing methods.
“This is a big deal,” Tour said. “The world throws out 30% to 40% of all food, because it goes bad, and plastic waste is of worldwide concern. We’ve already proven that any solid carbon-based matter, including mixed plastic waste and rubber tires, can be turned into graphene.”
As reported in Nature, flash graphene is made in 10 milliseconds by heating carbon-containing materials to 3,000 Kelvin (about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit). The source material can be nearly anything with carbon content. Waste food, plastic waste, petroleum coke, coal, wood clippings and biochar are prime candidates, Tour said. “With the present commercial price of graphene being $67,000 to $200,000 per ton, the prospects for this process look superb,” he said.
Tour said a concentration of as little as 0.1% of flash graphene in the cement used to bind concrete could lessen its massive environmental impact by a third. Production of cement reportedly emits as much as 8% of human-made carbon dioxide every year.
“By strengthening concrete with graphene, we could use less concrete for building, and it would cost less to manufacture and less to transport,” he said. “Essentially, we’re trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that waste food would have emitted in landfills. We are converting those carbons into graphene and adding that graphene to concrete, thereby lowering the amount of carbon dioxide generated in concrete manufacture. It’s a win-win environmental scenario using graphene.”
“Turning trash to treasure is key to the circular economy,” said co-corresponding author Rouzbeh Shahsavari, an adjunct assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice and president of C-Crete Technologies. “Here, graphene acts both as a 2D template and a reinforcing agent that controls cement hydration and subsequent strength development.”
In the past, Tour said, “graphene has been too expensive to use in these applications. The flash process will greatly lessen the price while it helps us better manage waste.”
“With our method, that carbon becomes fixed,” he said. “It will not enter the air again.”
The process aligns nicely with Rice’s recently announced Carbon Hub initiative to create a zero-emissions future that repurposes hydrocarbons from oil and gas to generate hydrogen gas and solid carbon with zero emission of carbon dioxide. The flash graphene process can convert that solid carbon into graphene for concrete, asphalt, buildings, cars, clothing and more, Tour said.
Flash Joule heating for bulk graphene, developed in the Tour lab by Rice graduate student and lead author Duy Luong, improves upon techniques like exfoliation from graphite and chemical vapor deposition on a metal foil that require much more effort and cost to produce just a little graphene.
Even better, the process produces “turbostratic” graphene, with misaligned layers that are easy to separate. “A-B stacked graphene from other processes, like exfoliation of graphite, is very hard to pull apart,” Tour said. “The layers adhere strongly together. But turbostratic graphene is much easier to work with because the adhesion between layers is much lower. They just come apart in solution or upon blending in composites.
“That’s important, because now we can get each of these single-atomic layers to interact with a host composite,” he said.
The lab noted that used coffee grounds transformed into pristine single-layer sheets of graphene.
Bulk composites of graphene with plastic, metals, plywood, concrete and other building materials would be a major market for flash graphene, according to the researchers, who are already testing graphene-enhanced concrete and plastic.
The flash process happens in a custom-designed reactor that heats material quickly and emits all noncarbon elements as gas. “When this process is industrialized, elements like oxygen and nitrogen that exit the flash reactor can all be trapped as small molecules because they have value,” Tour said.
He said the flash process produces very little excess heat, channeling almost all of its energy into the target. “You can put your finger right on the container a few seconds afterwards,” Tour said. “And keep in mind this is almost three times hotter than the chemical vapor deposition furnaces we formerly used to make graphene, but in the flash process the heat is concentrated in the carbon material and none in a surrounding reactor.
“All the excess energy comes out as light, in a very bright flash, and because there aren’t any solvents, it’s a super clean process,” he said.
Luong did not expect to find graphene when he fired up the first small-scale device to find new phases of material, beginning with a sample of carbon black. “This started when I took a look at a Science paper talking about flash Joule heating to make phase-changing nanoparticles of metals,” he said. But Luong quickly realized the process produced nothing but high-quality graphene.
Atom-level simulations by Rice researcher and co-author Ksenia Bets confirmed that temperature is key to the material’s rapid formation. “We essentially speed up the slow geological process by which carbon evolves into its ground state, graphite,” she said. “Greatly accelerated by a heat spike, it is also stopped at the right instant, at the graphene stage.
“It is amazing how state-of-the-art computer simulations, notoriously slow for observing such kinetics, reveal the details of high temperature-modulated atomic movements and transformation,” Bets said.
Tour hopes to produce a kilogram (2.2 pounds) a day of flash graphene within two years, starting with a project recently funded by the Department of Energy to convert U.S.-sourced coal. “This could provide an outlet for coal in large scale by converting it inexpensively into a much-higher-value building material,” he said.
Tour has a grant from the Department of Energy to scale up the flash graphene process, which will be co-funded by the start-up company, Universal Matter Ltd.
Co-authors of the paper include Rice graduate students Wala Ali Algozeeb, Weiyin Chen, Paul Advincula, Emily McHugh, Muqing Ren and Zhe Wang; postdoctoral researcher Michael Stanford; academic visitors Rodrigo Salvatierra and Vladimir Mancevski; Mahesh Bhatt of C-Crete Technologies, Stafford, Texas; and Rice assistant research professor Hua Guo. Boris Yakobson, the Karl F. Hasselmann Chair of Engineering and a professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry, is co-corresponding author.
Tour is the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice.
Posted By Graphene Council,
Monday, February 18, 2019
Updated: Monday, February 18, 2019
Laser-induced graphene (LIG), a flaky foam of the atom-thick carbon, has many interesting properties on its own but gains new powers as part of a composite.
The labs of Rice University chemist James Tour and Christopher Arnusch, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, introduced a batch of LIG composites in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano that put the material’s capabilities into more robust packages.
By infusing LIG with plastic, rubber, cement, wax or other materials, the lab made composites with a wide range of possible applications. These new composites could be used in wearable electronics, in heat therapy, in water treatment, in anti-icing and deicing work, in creating antimicrobial surfaces and even in making resistive random-access memory devices.
The Tour lab first made LIG in 2014 when it used a commercial laser to burn the surface of a thin sheet of common plastic, polyimide. The laser’s heat turned a sliver of the material into flakes of interconnected graphene. The one-step process made much more of the material, and at far less expense, than through traditional chemical vapor deposition.
Since then, the Rice lab and others have expanded their investigation of LIG. Last year, the Rice researchers created graphene foam for sculpting 3D objects.
“LIG is a great material, but it’s not mechanically robust,” said Tour, who co-authored an overview of laser-induced graphene developments in the Accounts of Chemical Research journal last year. “You can bend it and flex it, but you can’t rub your hand across it. It’ll shear off. If you do what’s called a Scotch tape test on it, lots of it gets removed. But when you put it into a composite structure, it really toughens up.”
To make the composites, the researchers poured or hot-pressed a thin layer of the second material over LIG attached to polyimide. When the liquid hardened, they pulled the polyimide away from the back for reuse, leaving the embedded, connected graphene flakes behind.
Soft composites can be used for active electronics in flexible clothing, Tour said, while harder composites make excellent superhydrophobic (water-avoiding) materials. When a voltage is applied, the 20-micron-thick layer of LIG kills bacteria on the surface, making toughened versions of the material suitable for antibacterial applications.
Composites made with liquid additives are best at preserving LIG flakes’ connectivity. In the lab, they heated quickly and reliably when voltage was applied. That should give the material potential use as a deicing or anti-icing coating, as a flexible heating pad for treating injuries or in garments that heat up on demand.
“You just pour it in, and now you transfer all the beautiful aspects of LIG into a material that’s highly robust,” Tour said.
Rice graduate students Duy Xuan Luong and Kaichun Yang and former postdoctoral researcher Jongwon Yoon, now a senior researcher at the Korea Basic Science Institute, are co-lead authors of the paper. Co-authors are former Rice postdoctoral researcher Swatantra Singh, now at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and Rice graduate student Tuo Wang. Tour is the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice.
The Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation supported the research.