WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Being able to quickly and easily tag foods and other products with sensors and other electronics that can be safely eaten could improve food safety and security.
James Tour believes anything can be turned into the wonder material, Graphene, a material so versatile it can be used to create self-healing materials, and let people drink filthy water while at the same time letting them charge their smartphone batteries faster, and now he’s produced a new type of “Edible electronic,” as they’re becoming known, to prove it.
For the past few years, the Rice University chemist’s lab has investigated new and innovative ways to use Graphene, a so called “miracle material,” and for him and his teams latest research, they’ve developed a method of imprinting Graphene patterns onto objects, any objects – from footballs to fruit.
See the technology at work
The team’s so called Laser Induced Graphene (LIG) tags comprise only a few layers of single atom thick Graphene, which is created out of the carbon already present in the objects.
“This is not ink,” said Tour in a press release, “this is taking the [object] itself and converting it into Graphene.”
The LIG tags can be burned into cardboard, cloth, cork, food, paper and much more, and the process takes place at room temperature. The resulting LIG patterns can then be used as biological sensors, radio-frequency ID (RFID) antennae, supercapacitors, or even electrocatalysts for fuel cells.
Rice and his team also discovered they could embed ID tags and sensors onto certain foods, including coconut shells, potatoes, and toast. This discovery isn’t all that surprising given that Tour’s lab seems to have a penchant for combining food and science, in 2011, they even turned Girl Scout cookies into graphene, and if commercialised the edible Graphene tags could be used to track information about a food item throughout the whole of its journey, or as we futurists say, from vertical farm to fork. Something that when combined with other food supply chain technologies, such as blockchain, that are now helping to track everything from pigs to tuna, could help provide people with every scrap of detail, from the place of production to the nutrient content of the food they’re about to eat, and more. Sorry criminals… no horse meat in this burger pattie today…
“Very often, we don’t see the advantage of something until we make it available,” said Tour, “perhaps one day 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.”
The tags could also be used to ensure food safety, for example, by warning a consumer if bacteria like E. coli has been detected.
“They could light up and give you a signal that you don’t want to eat this,” said Tour, “all that could be placed not on a separate tag on the food, but on the food itself.”
So while this, again, as many of you who read my blog will no doubt have found out by now, might look like a small, and irrelevant breakthrough, it’s one that with the right nurturing could help us all eat healthier, safer food. And that’s just for starters.