back to article Boffins make graphene micro-distillery

Graphene-creating boffins have discovered a new purpose for the wonder material - a teeny-tiny distillery. A team led by one of the Nobel prize-winning scientists who first made the world's thinnest and strongest material have now found out that graphene can stop air and other gases, but it lets water right through. Naturally …

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  1. Ian K
    Headmaster

    Andre Geim [...] won the Noble prize for physics for the work.

    That truly sounds like a prize fit for a king. Does it have the same kudos as the Nobel prize, though?

    1. spodula

      Well certainly

      There sorted for the after-awards party.

  2. Tony Barnes
    Mushroom

    Water purification

    Firstly, baffled as to how it would let water through but not helium through, given the size difference at play (only thought coming to mind is dipole nature of water?), but if this membrane does just let water through, and not anything else commonly found in drinking water, water purificaion options are surely about to get a boost?

    That said distillery option is also pretty intriguing - I believe home distilleries were made illegal for their potential to go 'boom' - a flame/heat/pressure chamber free solution should therefore become viable...??

    1. Magnus_Pym

      ilegal Stills

      Home distilling was made illegal because of the lucrative tax levied on spirits. The reason given might have been health and safety but money was always the prime mover.

      I was under the impression that helium always leaked because it was small and would always find any faults or interstitial cavities. If the graphene layer is a perfect lattice then there are no gaps as proven by its ability to block helium. Water molecules must therefore be 'passed' through the graphene by some sort of active process like a molecular level machine or catalyst.

    2. Chemist

      "how it would let water through but not helium "

      It's not clear to me how the layers are orientated bu it looks as though the graphene sheets are stacked "vertically" |||||| so that the water has to move along between the sheets. If these have hydrophilic groups and have dimensions that just allows water to move through the spaces then other materials may well have problems as there will be a strong tendency for water to fill the spaces and repel any other molecules. In this situation the water will behave quite differently to bulk water - it'll be more like a sloppy ice where every water molecule that evaporates from the low humidity end will need to be replaced from the high end to maintain the energetics.

    3. Scott 1
      Unhappy

      Don't count on it. The government isn't likely to do that because they get a *lot* of tax revenues from the sale of spirits.

    4. Stewart McKenna
      Mushroom

      Sewage treatment also comes to mind.

      When they say 'water' does it mean pure H2O or what?

      1. Wize

        A lot of applications depand on how fast it will pass water.

        Eg, if it takes an hour to get a litre of water through a square meter of graphene, then its not going to be practical for domestic water/sewage purification.

        Where as home spirit purification probably isn't going to matter if you want to wait a week for your Smirnoff Red to turn into Blue.

        1. Thomas 4
          Pint

          Home brewing question

          Is this what they mean by micro-brewed?

        2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          1 l/hm^2

          A liter-per-hour-per-square-meter of graphene-mat surface actually could work quite nicely for personal or household water filtering. In areas where clean water is hard to come by, if the graphene material can be produced cheaply enough, you could build a decent home water distillation system out of that.

          According to a couple of references I just checked, it looks like an adult in hot, arid conditions performing a mix of moderate and heavy exertion needs around 2-3 liters of water per day. I have no idea if that's at all reliable, but if it is, then a system producing 1 liter per hour could handle the drinking-water requirements of 8 adults. Even when we allow for cooking water and a ration of cleaning water, that looks reasonable for a household.

          Similarly, it'd probably work nicely for applications like camping, since you should be able to fold the mat for transportation.

  3. J P

    Presumably it'd do a similar trick with wine and other foodstuffs - Heston Blumenthal's gonna have a ball!

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
      Pint

      Love thissh kind of reshearsh. Love it. Bessht kind of shtuff. Really nishe. Really.

  4. bonkers
    Thumb Up

    fresh water

    I wonder if it lets Na+ through?

    there would be a huge market for potable water, for dry countries and for ships, hikers etc. At present they pump water through polythene, which takes a lot of effort and energy. sounds like it just pours through this wonder-stuff.

    1. dotdavid
      Thumb Up

      Desalination?

      Could this be used as an alternative to other more energy-intensive desalination methods? If so, it could solve water shortage problems in many places (and the ensuing conflicts) almost overnight.

    2. Stoneshop Silver badge

      The phrase "over time"

      does not, to me, indicate that it pours or even drips. But letting only pure H2O through sounds like a good thing. Just remember that for drinking you then need to add a few minerals, but those are easy to carry with you in powder or tablet form.

      1. Kanhef
        Thumb Up

        Nice to see so many people thinking about how this can be used to benefit humanity, not just high boffinry. The trick will be to get the cost of manufacturing it low enough.

        Drinking pure water generally isn't a problem; you can get enough of trace minerals through food, unless you're on an unusually restricted diet.

        1. Liam Johnson

          Drinking pure water generally isn't a problem

          Not 100% sure about that. High purity deionized water even feels strange as it strips the salts and fats out of your skin. Never tried drinking any though.

    3. Mike Richards Silver badge

      D2O

      I wonder if it also selectively allows H2O to pass, leaving the other side enriched in D2O? Put enough of them together and you could have a nice little heavy water plant.

      1. Chemist

        selectively allows H2O to pass

        I guess it well might. Even chemistry is different with deuterium. The rates of reactions are generally slower and drugs with a hydrogen replaced by deuterium at a point of metabolism are usually metabolised significantly more slowly.

        1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart
          Boffin

          They should get some up to the ISS, might mike the piss recycler work a bit better

          1. dracnoc
            Joke

            Re:

            Bear Grylls is on the ISS?

    4. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge

      desalting water

      I'm guessing it could desalt water. However, we already have pretty decent (and much cheaper) filters to do that. The problem is pushing the water with enough pressure to get usable volumes on the other side (and using a filter able to withstand the pressure; a test that graphene is likely to fail.)

      1. Brian 6
        Meh

        Pressure

        "As well as being the thinnest and strongest material known....." Strength would not be a problem.

  5. Northern Fop
    Alert

    "It's being hailed as the answer to almost all tech problems"

    So, this year's carbon nanotubes then...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Joke

      Nuclear fusion, surely?

      No, wait, that's been 20 years away since the 1950s...

      1. Liam Johnson

        Graphene is the new carbon?

    2. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart
      Joke

      It's being hailed as the answer to almost all tech problems

      What!! Can it debug my junior Java programmer's code, he's struggling a bit

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Well There's Your Problem!

        He's writing Java!

        Try switching to C#, C, C++, hell I would even prefer VB!

  6. Richard Wharram

    Flying cars?

    Surely.

  7. JDX Gold badge

    What's so special about water that only it comes through?

    1. JimmyPage Silver badge
      Boffin

      Waters weird

      as I vaguely recall from 30 years ago. You'd *think* it would be ionically bonded, but IIRC it's actually weakly covalent, which is why it has some odd properties which are essential to life (why do you think the first indication of life astrobiologists use is liquid water). Also remember the "anomalous expansion of water "as it cools through 4C ?

      1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge
        Boffin

        @JimmyPage

        That's not even the start of it. Water has a whole load of anomalous properties, due to various things, such as hydrogen bonding, its dihedral angle, dipole and the unbonded lone-pairs of electrons on the oxygen atom.

        A good list of these is here:

        http://www.lsbu.ac.uk/water/anmlies.html

    2. stucs201

      The BBC article explains things slightly more. Apparently water gets through because the gap betweeen layers exactly fits a single water molecule, whereas everything else is the wrong size.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        But what about Helium?

        Helium is atomic number 2, the second smallest element in existence besides Hydrogen at 1. It's atomic weight is a mere 4. And it's a noble gas, to boot, so it normally exists atomically. How can anything that allows water (which contains the much-larger oxygen atom--atomic number 8, weight 16) not allow helium. It can't be anything like a filter of sieve, since helium is smaller than water.

        1. Black Betty

          Always too much water in the way.

          Gaps in the membrane are exactly "one water wide". There's NEVER any room for anything else. As soon as there's room for a fresh water molecule at a gap, it displaces anthing which might physically occupy the space. He (and everything else) gets left behind.

          It's probably quantum too.

  8. Mage Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    I was disapointed

    I thought they had a new way to distil graphene from unwanted vodka. Though I can appreciate that the actual discovery may be better.

    1. perlcat
      Pint

      I was confused.

      What is this "unwanted vodka" substance? I have come up with several plans to help dispose of it in just the time it took to write this sentence.

  9. YP
    Thumb Up

    Water not ethanol

    So it only let the water through and not the ethanol, that is interesting (sorry never come across any He in my vodka, so for the sake if this article that is just not relevant). .

    1. Stratman

      It's the He that make you light-headed

      1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        H to He who am the only one

        Sorry...

  10. Caff

    helium

    Given the shortage of helium this could prove quite useful if they can make it into containers

  11. Dick Emery
    Joke

    I don't believe it!

    I need at least 95% proof!

    1. Jedit
      Boffin

      You aim too low

      When it comes to advanced scientific brewing techniques, one should be aiming for at least 300% proof. 307 Ale, my boys, 307 Ale...

      http://www.songmeanings.net/songs/view/3530822107858848784/

      1. TeeCee Gold badge
        Pint

        Er, that's 300º proof, not 300% proof........

        %age measurements of alcoholic beverages are the %age by volume of alcohol in them. Thus 300% a) isn't possible and b) would kill you if it were.

        Degrees of proof orginally measured the effect when gunpowder is soaked in whatever it is. If the gunpowder just still burns, you have 100 degrees of proof (which is a shade under 60% by volume alcohol). 300 degrees would remove your eybrows when you lit the gunpowder (and is also impossible, being about 175% abv alcohol if my maths is correct).

        Stereotypically, Yank "proof" differs from British "degrees of proof".

        Beer is measured by Original Gravity and you should be aiming for about 1100 for something really lethal and yet still drinkable.

        It's Friday and you presented the opportunity to look again at booze strength measures, what did you expect?

        1. Jedit
          Pint

          Degrees, not percentage of proof

          I am aware of this, thanks. However, I was coming to the end of my lunch break and didn't have time to find the proper symbol.

          Also, please do follow my link. You sound like you might appreciate it.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        There is no such thing as %proof...

        there is either percentage by volume, or degrees proof (and old measure invovling gunpowder).

        1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart
          Pint

          Why not

          Why can't you have alcohol that's equivalent to 300º proof? with the right additives petrol can made to a 120 octane rating.

          More boffinery required to investigate this

  12. Christoph Silver badge
    Boffin

    Balloons

    Can they line the envelope of helium balloons with this stuff? That would give you much longer lifetimes. You could put things like relay stations up in the stratosphere.

    1. Thomas 18
      Thumb Up

      I was thinking the same thing

      Except mine was more along the lines of "party balloons that never ever go down!!! yay!!"

      1. Peter Murphy
        Thumb Up

        Not only party balloons.

        El Reg's Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator (LOHAN) project may have just got a lot easier.

        1. zen1
          Pint

          Party at the LOHAN

          with extra potent vodka. Order has been restored to the force. On a serious note, these guys are SO getting a thank you note from me!

  13. Andy Christ
    Pint

    I'll drink to that!

    Shounds like a brilliant water purification filter too.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    um, desalination?

    If it lets water through but precious little else, then could it turn contaminated or sea water into potable water?

  15. Alister Silver badge

    Sea water Mineral extraction

    If they can make this large scale it could lead to commercially viable mineral extraction from sea water...

  16. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    @Desalination

    I suppose the question that has to be asked is how quickly water will diffuse through a graphene membrane as opposed to current semi-permeable membranes, such as visking tubing used in dialysis. In other words, how much pressure is needed to get water through at a reasonable rate, and how robust is this stuff?

    1. Andy Christ

      ...

      And can liquid water pass through the graphine oxide membrane at all? The water in this experiment escaped as a vapor.

      1. Robert E A Harvey

        People who need water tend to live in places with loads of solar heating possible.

  17. Graham Marsden
    Thumb Up

    Drinkable water...

    ... is still in short supply in many places in the world either due to lack of treatment plants or because of wars, natural disasters etc

    If this technology pans out and provides a reasonable flow of water it could save a lot of lives and hardship.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Flat water, bouncy helium

    from how I understand the report, water gets through because it's a flat molecule and can slide between the sheets of graphene.

    H2O is also a polar molecule, i.e. asymmetrical or a bit "L" shaped and not straight, so the hydrogen atoms are on one side are slightly positive charged and attract the slightly negatively oxygen atoms from adjacent water molecules (hydrogen bonding) so there's the possibility of giving the molecule behind a pull to help it line up and fit through the gaps. This would speed up the flow of water molecules across the membrane.

    That's not enough to explain why helium doesn't get through. Helium is such a small and light atom that at normal temperatures (i.e a measure of kinetic energy) each atom has to be moving much faster than other atoms. Do we have the situation where something going so fast it bounces off the entrance to the gap between the sheets of graphene in the way that a pinball sent at full strength won't land in a hole? The probability of a direct hit on the gap in exactly the right direction is so low that it becomes effectively impermeable. And even then, the gaps are already filled with a nose-to-tail queue of water molecules waiting their turn to get through.

    That interpretation is all dreadfully Newtonian (molecules aren't really made of balls joined by sticks) there could easily be a quantum mechanics explanation that works better. I'd predict something else is going on within the graphene sheets, probably involving delocalised (unbound) electrons and partial charge separation to interact with the polarised water molecules and draw them across the gap.

    Whatever the mechanism is, it's an excellent piece of materials science and if it could become a desalination technology, it would be fantastic if it helped solve the biggest environmental and human problem - access to drinking water.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Flat molecules

      They could try benzene. Flat molecule non-polar, symmetrical shape. If it's the shape then it should go through, if it's the polar characteristics then it shouldn't.

  19. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

    Have they tested hydrogen?

    If helium can't get through, could the same also be true of hydrogen? If so we could have much lighter rockets and spaceplanes.

    Perhaps I could have a space holiday before I die, without having to rob several banks.

    There's also replacing/changing current reverse osmosis methods of course, but clean drinking water is much less fun. It takes an awful lot of electricity to push water through against the osmotic pressure, so there's huge potential to simplify the process and save energy. You often have to soften the water to avoid knackering the membranes.

    But improving the lives of billions is surely a low priority in comparison to cheap, super-strong vodka and affordable spaceships...

  20. Bert 1
    Big Brother

    Home distillery

    So, armed with merely a pencil, some sellotape, and an alcoholic beverage, I can distil spirits in a completely safe and undetectable manner?

    If I get raided, I can just draw the graphene onto a bit of paper :-)

  21. xeroks
    Go

    Future graphene research projects.

    There are several significant inventions we're still waiting for - could graphene be the missing piece in the jigsaw?

    1) try firing a beam of neutrinos at some of the stuff. Who knows? You might invent a time machine. Or a Warp drive. It's worth a try.

    2) Or what about concentrated light? There's got to be a way to turn a handful of laser pointers into a lightsabre, and graphene might just be it. Since the lightsabre sound is v. important, try firing laser and sound at graphene at the same time.

    3) Maybe it reflects gravity. We already know you can write upside down using a graphite pencil. A hoverboard would be cool.

    4) But not as useful as a teleporter. Not one of those boring quantum teleporters. A real one. Maybe a pair of entangled sheets of graphene would to the trick

    Come on! This isn't about namby-pamby double-bluffed testing. It's about throwing science at the wall and seeing what sticks.

  22. metroman
    Pint

    Would this help E85 production

    The whole problem of product viability in the advancement of ethyl for the auto industry is the verification of the most minuscule amounts of water. If this could be simply incorporated into the distilling of the Ethyl, the use of corn would be eliminated they could use basic organic matter and ferment it, the cost of corn is high and the viability of the production is dependent on the alcohol formation by using sugars in corn, sugar beats, and sugar cane. If the fermentation of any cellulose material was a possibly the amounts of water required to do so and the lower grade production wouldn't matter since the water would be easily strained off and producing a 100% ethyl for our autos. Cost would come down for producers, and their profits would increase. If we could blend 90% of our petrol with E85 instead of E10 we would lower fuel prices about $1.25 a gallon. It would also piss off the Arabs.

  23. Al42
    Linux

    Look out for Tactical Nuclear Penguin ++

    I'm shure they will be brewing a Graphine Distilled Beer Shortly....

    Hmmm 32% abv £3.00 for a shot in My Local OUCH

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Solve all problems

    I thought it also solved the overpopulation problem as it causes cancer?

  25. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Boffin

    Might also help the Hydrogen industry.

    As a pipe and tank liner if this stuff can stop H2 diffusion that would be *very* impressive.

    Caveats. Such an application would need large areas made *cheaply*, not one of graphenes strong points IIRC.

    And of course there is the question of weather you *want* a Hydrogen economy given what a PITA it is to pressurize (backbone pipelines are not like house supplies) or liquify.

    *if* you're still keen it cuts down some of the problems from *staggeringly* difficult (replacing *all* conventional piping with H2 resistant piping) to just very difficult (coating the existing stuff with an internal graphene layer).

  26. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Where were HM customs and excise during this "experiment"?

    One law for the people, another for the "scientists".

  27. K. Adams
    Pint

    "Wonder stuff cooked up super-strength vodka"

    Graphene <hic />... Is there any- <hic /> -thing it can't do <stumble />...?

  28. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Its not vodka

    because it not distillation.

    Since its not distillation it may be legal to do at home until the gov waste more taxpayers money making it illegal that it would ever bring in in tax.

    It should be noted that you can make really quite drinkable 20% proof wines at home with a little practice.

    And if you want to get smashed quickly you want to water your shots down to 20% anyway so why not cut to the chase and check out how to make a high alcohol rice wine which can be ready to drink in 4 days.

    1. Black Betty

      Freeze distilation.

      Chill in flat pans. Drop in ice chips. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Remove ice sheets. Decant. Age.... There that's about right. Drink.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Problem with that.

        Freeze distillation, or "jacking", tends to have one big drawback. Jacked liquor (like applejack--freeze-distilled apple brandy) tends to have more nasty fusel alcohols than you get with normal heat distillation. The practice is normally discouraged for anything but highly-traditional practices or for low-level jacking seen in ice beers and eisbock.

  29. Red Kite Robin
    Happy

    Hindenburg II

    If it can hold hydrogen, does the high heat conductance mean the it's very unlikely to catch fire - the heat would spread across the whole skin. So a hydrogen airship would be on then?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      re: Hindenburg

      Remember that Hindenburg was basically painted with highly flammable material. IIRC it was the same material that was used in the roll of film that recorded its crash.

      The name of the product elude me.

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