Your Food Waste Could Be Turned Into the Strongest Material on Earth

Scientists in the U.K. are working to transform garbage into the lightest, toughest substance ever discovered.

(Photo: Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images)

Feb 17, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Here’s one for the annals of gee-whiz futuristic-fabulous technology: Researchers in the U.K. are working on a process to make graphene, arguably the most heralded new substance discovered in a generation, from an unlikely source—your expired leftovers.

Just a single atom thick, graphene is the lightest material ever discovered. Counterintuitively (at least to the non-chemists among us), it also is the strongest—about 300 times stronger than steel. As if that weren’t enough, it’s also the best conductor of electricity on Earth.

Like graphite (remember pencils?), from which it was first derived, graphene is made up of carbon. Because carbon is among the most abundant elements on the planet—as in the building block of all life-forms—graphene can theoretically be obtained from a slew of organic sources. Like, say, your old coffee grounds and that container of leftover pad thai you didn't get around to finishing.

Scientists working with PlasCarb, a project based at the Centre for Process Innovation in the U.K., are seeing if they can’t transform a fraction of the 1.3 billion tons of food we waste every year around the world, according to the United Nations, into the next-gen wonder material.

How are they doing it?

Well, it’s complicated, at least to anyone (like me) who last encountered the periodic table in high school. As The Guardian reports, the process first converts the food waste to biogas using anaerobic digestion. Then that biogas, which consists primarily of methane and carbon, is transformed into graphitic carbon and hydrogen using “an innovative low-energy plasma reactor.” It’s from the graphitic carbon that the graphene is derived.

The project is in the second year of a three-year run. Researchers are preparing to embark on a trial project that will transform 150 tons of food waste into 25,000 cubic meters of biogas, and they still need to figure out whether the entire process can be commercially scaled and made economically viable.

That’s probably OK, because scientists around the world are still trying to figure out what to do with graphene. Since it was first obtained in a lab at the University of Manchester a little more than a decade ago (an achievement that would win scientists there the Nobel Prize), graphene has captivated research engineers around the world. As John Colapinto detailed recently in The New Yorker, some 3,018 graphene-related patents were filed in 2011. By the dawn of 2013, that number had jumped to more than 8,400.

Ultralight aircraft…new biotechnologies to help victims of paralysis…ultrafast superconductors. The possibilities for graphene to remake our world of stuff seem endless. Bill Gates has even invested in the development of a superlight, superstrong graphene-based “super condom.”

But getting those innovations through R & D and to market has proved a challenge for a host of reasons (see Colapinto’s look at why Silicon Valley isn’t likely to become Graphene Valley anytime soon).

Nevertheless, graphene is the sort of OMG substance that someone, sometime soon, is going to find amazing uses for—and if we could use our trashed food to make it, so much the better.