Electronics, the lifeblood of the modern world, could soon be part of our daily diet. In a study appearing in ACS Nano, scientists report that they have developed a way to write graphene patterns onto virtually any surface including food. They say the new technique could lay the groundwork for the edible electronics capable of tracing the progression of foods from farm to table, as well as detecting harmful organisms that can cause gastric distress.
Graphene is composed of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern. It is stronger than steel, thinner than a human hair and more conductive than copper, making an ideal building block for the next generation of compact, smart electronics. Several years ago, James M. Tour and colleagues heated the surface of an inexpensive plastic with a laser in air to create something called laser-induced graphene (LIG). LIG is a foam made out of tiny cross-linked graphene flakes. The process can embed or burn patterns that could be used as supercapacitors, radio frequency identification (RFID) antennas or biological sensors. Based on these results, the researchers theorized that any substance with a reasonable amount of carbon can be turned into graphene. To test this theory, Tour’s team sought to burn LIG into food, cardboard and several other everyday, carbon-based materials.
The researchers used a single laser pulse to convert the surface layer of the target substance into a disorganized jumble of atoms called amorphous carbon, more commonly known as black soot. Then, they conducted multiple laser passes with a defocused beam to convert the soot into graphene. By defocusing the laser beam, the researchers could speed up the conversion process. And unlike previous LIG processes, the graphene conversions conducted in these experiments were done at room temperature without the need for a controlled atmosphere box. Overall, the process demonstrated that LIG can be burned into paper, cardboard, cloth, coal, potatoes, coconuts, toasted bread and other foods. The researchers say these results suggests that food items could eventually be tagged with RFID antennas made from LIG that could help track where a food originated, how long it’s been stored and how it got to the dining table. In addition, they suggest that LIG sensors could be used to uncover E. coli and other harmful organisms lurking in salads, meats and other foods.