Most of us can safely confess to enjoying sugary, delicious Girl Scout cookies in at least one of the variety of flavors that have been baked, presumably, in some secret Antarctican Girl Scout base and brought to our front doors year after year. What’s your favorite? Thin Mints? Samoas? Tagalongs? Trefoils? Dulce de Leche? Shortbread? Peanut Butter Patties? Well, whatever has you eagerly awaiting delivery when cookie season rolls into town (a painfully long 178 days, 0 hours, 49 minutes, and 6 seconds in my neighborhood), you might want to chew slowly and carefully — to the graphene industry, one box of those tasty little lovelies could be used to make a sheet of graphene just one atom thick that would cover 30 football fields and be worth a whopping $15 billion!
Graphene, discovered in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov (who won the Nobel Prize as a result), is a nanomaterial that’s thin and strong and applicable to countless purposes — notably as a potential replacement for indium tin oxide for use in flat-panel and touch-screen displays, LED lighting, and solar cells.
How would anyone even begin to think of making this stuff from something as random as Girl Scout cookies? Rice University chemist James Tour boasted at a meeting that his chemistry lab had created graphene from common table sugar. As Tour tells it: “I said we could grow it from any carbon source — for example, a Girl Scout cookie, because Girl Scout cookies were being served at the time. So one of the people in the room said, ‘Yes, please do it. … Let’s see that happen.’”
So that’s what they’re teaching kids in the universities these days.
To fulfill this odd request and prove that he wasn’t a dirty, stinking liar, Tour and his team of graduate students invited Girl Scout Troop 25080 from Houston to bring the cookies and enjoy the show. (It’s not reported if milk accompanied the demonstration, but I like to imagine so.) Carbon deposition on copper foil over the course of 15 minutes in a furnace burning at 1,050 degree Celsius with a flow of argon and hydrogen gas produced high-quality graphene from the provided cookies in the demonstration. Just as amazingly, the same results occurred when the furnace was given other random carbon-based materials to convert into graphene; among these varied sources were chocolate, grass, polystyrene plastic, a cockroach leg, and, decidedly less delicious than Girl Scout cookies (but maybe more delicious than a cockroach leg), dog feces. The important lesson learned here, says, Tours, is “that carbon — or any element — in one form can be inexpensive and in another form can be very expensive.”
Also, that scientists like to play with poop — but to each their own! Here’s a video of the demonstration, and if you’re now as hungry for Girl Scout cookies as I am, you can get the free iPhone Cookie Finder from the App Store.