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Graphene

Edible electronics, like this piece of toast, could tell us information about the food we eat

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One day, the toast you eat for breakfast could convey information about where that bread was made and whether it's still safe to eat.

Scientists at Rice University in Houston, Texas, have found a way to turn the surface of materials with a certain carbon content, like toast, into graphene.

"Graphene is a sheet of, basically, atomically thin carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern," explained Yieu Chyan, a graduate student who co-authored a paper on laser-induced graphene (LIG) that was recently published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano.

Researchers found that the graphene patterns written on certain materials can be used as fuel cells, raido-frequency identification (RFID) tags and biological sensors, among other things.

"Very often, we don’t see the advantage of something until we make it available,” Rice University chemist James Tour said in a press release. “Perhaps all food will have a tiny RFID tag that gives you information about where it’s been, how long it’s been stored, its country and city of origin and the path it took to get to your table."

Tour also suggested that LIG tags could be used to detect various foodborne illnesses such as E. Coli. He described scenario where the tag could light up, warning consumers that a product may no longer be safe to consume.

However, it's still unclear just how many food products could actually have a graphene pattern written on them.

As Chyan explained, natural materials that contain a lot of lignan -- a complex, rigid polymer found in the cell walls of many plants -- seem to work best. Because cork, coconut shells and potato skins all have higher lignan content, researchers found that it was easier write graphene patterns on them.

Chyan said he could also see this technology being used to reduce food waste.

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"There's a lot of potato waste, actually, that the U.S,. and other countries generate," he explained. "When you peel those potatoes, make all those fries, that material can actually be recovered and perhaps used as a source material for making graphene."

So far, scientists have been able to write graphene patterns onto paper, cardboard, cloth, coal and various foods.

Tour said in a press release that he can see this being used to incorporate electronics into clothing as well.

As for the future, Chyan said they're still exploring new potential applications.

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