Christian Chemist Saves the Planet in a Flash
Dr James Tour invents a process that can
instantly recycle any carbon substance.
It sounds too good to be true. Zap some junk car parts with this invention, and get instant graphene, a highly dense form of environmentally-friendly carbon that scientists have been drooling over for decades. Zap a piece of coal with it, or landfill plastic, and get the same product. The just-published process by Dr. James Tour of Rice University is groundbreaking for a sustainable economy, and breathtaking in its implications. It’s quick, cheap, easy to use, and could turn junkyards into supplies of material as good as gold. Dr Tour’s invention could usher in the much-discussed circular economy, where artificial waste gets completely recycled. New Scientist explains,
Graphene is a form of atom-thick carbon with a number of useful electrical and material properties. James Tour at Rice University in Texas and his colleagues have previously found that plastic could be converted into graphene via a process called flash joule heating, where material is heated to temperatures generally in excess of 2700°C by passing high voltages through it.
They have now worked with car manufacturer Ford to show that this graphene can be used to manufacture new parts for cars, and that those new parts can again be recycled into fresh graphene.
Watch Dr Tour and his students operate an earlier version of their device on YouTube. It looks for all the world like something Doc would have concocted in the fun fantasy world of Back to the Future, but it is real.
In experiments, the team took material from bumpers, gaskets, carpets and seats from Ford F-150 pickup trucks and converted it to graphene. Ford used this to create new plastic parts for cars and found these had comparable performance to standard parts made with fresh graphene.
The Sky Is the Limit
This means that the same process can reuse the “new” parts after they wear out and be turned into graphene again and again. If this recycling method becomes widespread, uncountable tons of waste plastic could be saved from landfills or from ending up in the ocean. And there are other potential implications of the technology:
- The process makes the new products stronger than the old ones. This is called “upcycling.” Graphene adds durability to materials reused in the recycled parts.
- The other elements in the source material—hydrogen, oxygen, chlorine or silica—become vaporized in the process of flash joule heating and can also be captured for recycling.
- Graphene can be incorporated into concrete—one of the largest artificial sources of carbon dioxide—mitigating climate change and making the concrete stronger in the process.
- Asphalt roads can be strengthened when reinforced with graphene.
- Landfills, which currently give off the potent greenhouse gas methane, can be mined for plastic to flash into graphene without the production of methane.
- Because graphene is much more valuable than the discarded plastic from which it is made, a potential market could arise for poor people to collect trash and junk for flash graphene centers, helping lift them out of poverty.
- The sustainable economy foreseen by this technology could create uncountable high-paying jobs.
- The technology could greatly reduce the need for domestic imports. Rare earth elements become recyclable from existing computer parts without requiring dependencies on tyrannical governments.
- Third world countries may benefit from higher and better use of their natural resources.
Dr Tour’s group began publishing the process of flash joule heating (FJH) in 2020. This latest paper was published May 26, 2022.
- January 2020, Nature (Luong et al., “Gram-scale bottom-up flash graphene synthesis”)
- October 2020 in the nanotechnology journal of the American Chemical Society (Algozeeb et al., “Flash Graphene from Plastic Waste,” ACS Nano).
- New: May 26, 2020, Nature Communications Engineering, Wyss et al., “Upcycling end-of-life vehicle waste plastic into flash graphene.”
What Is a Circular Economy and What Are Its Benefits?
The latest work focuses on repeated recycling of junk parts using flash joule heating (FJH) to make flash graphene (FG). The new paper explains upcycling and why it is far superior to old-fashioned recycling, and leads to a circular economy:
Beyond lowering energy, climate, and water burdens, an additional sustainability goal for product systems is preserving material utility. Establishing circular material flows in recycling processes is an important sustainability strategy for industrial products. The key characteristic in closed loop recycling processes is the maintenance of original materials properties, which allows for recycled material to displace virgin material. Upcycling is the process of converting a material into a new resource of higher quality, value and increased functionality. Both approaches avoid material downcycling, which can narrow the potential uses for recycled materials to less valuable applications and thus continue the demand for virgin materials for higher value applications.
Downcycling is like using a photocopy machine to make a copy of a copy of copy of a picture. Each one down the chain degrades until the last one is hardly recognizable, becoming useful for little or nothing. Upcycling is like reducing an old Ford F150 pickup truck to its atoms and rebuilding it stronger, using materials that are better than the original.
It’s just enormous what we’re going to be able to do. —James Tour
Ford Motor Company contacted Tour’s lab after hearing about the FG process. The paper describes how Ford Motor Company took graphene recycled by Tour’s team from pickup truck parts and made an enriched polyurethane foam from it with better properties than the old foam they used. Such improved materials can be made from other kinds of plastic sources as well, adding not only to the quality of the material but extending its life cycle.
If the new truck can be recycled again after its end of life, then again and again, a “closed loop recycling process” is achieved which is sustainable in the long term. It could signal the end of old-fashioned recycling with all its drawbacks. Tour has a company called Universal Matter,
Gold in that Graphene
The paper describes one of the tests they performed on Ford pickup parts. Because graphene is so valuable and has so many desirable properties, they showed how junk can be turned into a virtual gold mine!
Recently, a process to convert mixed waste plastics into graphene was reported. This method took advantage of flash Joule heating (FJH), a highly efficient technique using small amounts of electrical energy to form high quality turbostratic graphene called flash graphene (FG). This is a solvent-, water-, and furnace-free method at a projected electrical energy cost of only ~$125 per ton of plastic waste. Graphene is an extremely valuable material (retail prices $60,000 to $200,000 per ton) due to its useful properties. For example, graphene has a Young’s modulus of 1 TPa, with good electrical conductivity and high thermal and chemical stabilities. Thus, graphene has received considerable attention as a composite additive to enhance the properties of the host material, in applications ranging from plastics to concrete and asphalt. This allows for less host material to be used to achieve the same properties, decreasing the overall environmental footprint of the host.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
It’s not just used pickup parts that could be recycled. In the YouTube video mentioned above, Dr Tour says that any carbon material can be put into the FJH. He and his grad students have made graphene from Girl Scout cookies, dead roaches and lumps of coal. What else could be thrown into the hopper? Grass clippings, food waste, water bottles, computer and electronics parts, batteries, waste oil, rubber tires, metal composites, medical waste —almost every carbon-based material in society that environmentalists worry about could become input for an FJH factory. Out of it would flow clean carbon in graphene form, available for construction, jobs, and new wealth creation. In the past, graphene has been too costly to produce for applications. FJH brings the price way down. See the press release from Rice University published with the video on January 27, 2020, and another embedded video clip about the potential of FJH.
Workers can take heart at this. For one example, the coal industry has been suffering, Tour points out. This process would allow coal miners to keep their jobs and turn coal into a much more valuable product than coal itself, which is just burned for power and widely condemned as a major polluter. Coal-based graphene can make building materials 35% stronger than those without it. Imagine coal going into materials like paint, films, and asphalt without causing pollution. “It’s just enormous what we’re going to be able to do,” Tour says.
Climate Alarmists and Environmentalists Should Love This, Too
Speaking of the environment, who hasn’t heard warnings to reduce our “carbon footprint” to prevent global warming? Graphene is carbon: a highly dense, stable form of carbon in flat sheets with a chickenwire-mesh structure that resists breakdown. Dr Tour’s FJH invention looks like a fantastic way to mitigate atmospheric carbon. It takes sources that would otherwise emit CO2 and converts them into graphene that doesn’t enter the atmosphere. Even rural doubters of global warming are not likely to put up a fuss with the rise of FJH industry. It will give them stronger pickup trucks and stronger roads to drive on—maybe even higher paying jobs.
About the Inventor
Dr James Tour is one of the leading chemists in America, with 750 research publications, over 130 granted patents and over 100 pending patents. As a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University in Texas, he has also been a leader in creative nanotechnology. He has expertise in designing molecular machines such as molecular “cars” that can move according to the wishes of the operator—another field with enormous application potentials in medicine and robotics. His list of accomplishments looks so impressive, it seems hard to imagine any human fitting it all into one lifetime. But James Tour is still actively contributing his expertise for the good of society.
Incidentally, readers will notice something else on his website. He is an outspoken Christian and student of the Bible. He gives online Bible studies by Zoom to anyone wishing to join in. Coming from a Jewish background, he came to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah from his own investigation of the Bible’s claims, particularly the life of Jesus and the Old Testament prophecies of his arrival. Dr Tour’s testimony was recorded by Kevin Conover on the latter’s radio program, Educate for Life on Feb 11, 2017.
Dr Tour is also a vociferous critic of Darwinian evolution and naturalistic “origin of life” theories. As a chemist, given his knowledge of the challenges in designing functional molecules able to perform work, he has little patience with simplistic stories about protein machines and molecular codes arising by chance. His YouTube channel contains a 13-part series on abiogenesis from 2021 that was prompted by attacks against his views by one Dave Perino who tried to defend abiogenesis. Alongside this series, one can find Bible study lectures by Tour and lectures on chemistry.
Historical and Futuristic Visions
Dr James Tour’s career resembles those of two other historic Christian physicists whose work changed the world. James Prescott Joule [1818-1889, see our biography] for whom Flash Joule Heating is named, was one of the leading physicists of the 19th century. He measured the mechanical equivalent of heat and essentially gave the world the concept of the conservation of energy. Another profoundly important Christian in the history of science was Michael Faraday [1791-1867, see biography], who discovered electromagnetic induction and many other phenomena in chemistry, magnetism and electricity. Entire new industries sprang out of their work, creating millions of jobs.
While the world waits to see the practical outcomes of Dr Tour’s work, it is worth remembering the historical impact of other great scientists who loved God and studied the Bible. The applications of Joule’s thermodynamic principles and Faraday’s law of induction, especially when explicated by James Clerk Maxwell [1831-1879, see biography] and William Thomson, Lord Kelvin [1824-1907, see biography]—two other strong Christian men of science—were largely unrealized during their lifetimes. Yet out of the efforts of these great scientists, who believed in God and disdained naturalistic stories, came our modern world.
Whole new economies grew from the good scientific work of God-fearing scientists like these. Everything that uses electronics today—generators, cell phones, space communications, radar, computers, and so much more—sprang not from atheists and evolutionists. It sprang from diligent scientists whose work was propelled by confidence in God’s wisdom and providence in creation. Dr James Tour is next in that historic continuum.
This has to be among the most encouraging stories we have published in 20 years. What’s not to love about this discovery? Both liberals and conservatives, believers and atheists, can look to a bright future ahead if Dr James Tour’s findings lead to the coveted sustainable circular economy, where “upcycling” replaces recycling and gives us a cleaner world without loss of productivity. The potential for wealth creation without sacrificing the environment appears within reach. Widespread adoption of FJH could lift millions out of poverty, forestall wars over resources, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
Will the fact that the inventor is a God-fearing man and outspoken Darwin skeptic change the outcome? Not if Big Science and Big Media can drop their bias and stay focused on the benefits of this technology for them, too. It’s possible that James Tour’s credit will be stolen and attributed to others, as happened to Dr Raymond Damadian, inventor of MRI [see biography]. In this case with so much internet publicity out there, it seems likely that James Tour’s work is too well established for that to happen. Still, the hot-headed anticreationists of the world, like Dave Farina and other Darwin dobermans whose bark is bigger than their bite, will likely continue to publicize their rants to the ignorant for awhile. Anti-Christians must learn to drop their hate in view of the great good that Dr James Tour’s findings offer to a world in crisis.