How to make graphene out of Girl Scout Cookies

You can make graphene out of almost anything. Well, theoretically, anyways. And if you make it out of a box of Girl Scout Cookies, they could be worth $15 billion.

Rice University graduate students working in chemist James Tour’s lab proved this when they reached out to a troop of Houston Girl Scouts to show them how it can be done.


The  demonstration is part of a paper published online yesterday by ACS Nano. Rice scientists detailed how graphene – a single-atom-thick sheet of the same material in pencil lead – can be created from almost any carbon source, including food, insects and waste.


The cookie fun began with a dare when Tour brought up how his lab had produced graphene from table sugar at a meeting.


“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,” Tour recalled. “So one of the people in the room said, ‘Yes, please do it. … Let’s see that happen.'”


Members of the Girl Scouts of America’s Troop 25080 went to Rice’s Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology to observe the procedure. Rice graduate students Gedeng Ruan, lead author of the paper, and Zhengzong Sun figured out that at the then-commercial rate for pristine graphene – $250 for a two-inch square – a box of Girl Scout shortbread cookies could yield a $15 billion profit.


“That’s a lot of cash!” said an amazed Sydney Shanahan, a member of the troop.


Wow, that’s about the only thing that could be more palatable than a peanut butter-filled tagalong.


Sun said that a piece of graphene from one package of shortbread cookies would cover almost 30 football fields.


The demonstration was a lighthearted way to illustrate a serious point: graphene – publicized as a miracle material for its toughness and conductivity since its discovery in 2004 – can be made from many sources.


To demonstrate this, the researchers tested a variety of materials, as reported in the paper, which included chocolate, grass, polystyrene plastic, insects (a cockroach leg) and even dog feces. The feces came from lab manager Dustin James’ awesomely named miniature dachshund, Sid Vicious.


In all of the examples, the researchers showed the ability to make high-quality graphene through carbon deposition on copper foil. Through this process, the graphene forms on the other side of the foil as dense carbon sources break down; the other residues remain on the original side. In most situations, this occurs in about 15 minutes in a furnace flowing with argon and hydrogen gas and cranked up to 1,050 degrees Celsius.


Tour thinks that the cost of graphene will drop quickly as commercial interests come up with ways to make it in bulk. Another recent paper by Tour and his coworkers details a long-sought after way to make graphene-based transparent electrodes by mixing graphene with a fine aluminum mesh. The material could replace costly indium tin oxide as a basic component in flat-panel and touch screen displays, solar cells, and LED lighting.


The experiment the Girl Scouts saw “has a lot to do with current research topics in academia and in industry,” said Tour, Rice’s T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and of computer science. “They learned that carbon – or any element –in one form can be inexpensive and in another form can be very expensive.”


Diamonds are a prime example; he said “You could probably get a very large diamond out of a box of Girl Scout Cookies.”

It isn’t as easy as it sounds though. Complicated and expensive equipment is needed. So don’t be going out and buying all of the cookies from stores with hopes of turning them into diamonds.

Cookies are for eating.