Chance Discovery, Amazing Possibilities
Story by Tara Roberts, photos by Melissa Hartley, video by Ray Lyon, University Communications and Marketing
UI researchers are studying a material discovered by accident that they now believe is a new — and useful — form of carbon
In the summer of 2007, a Colorado rancher asked Jeremy Foutch to test oil shale found on his land to see if it contained precious metals. Foutch — who had recently earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Idaho — burned the shale in a porcelain crucible in his home laboratory. But as acrid smoke filled the garage, he turned off the burner and looked inside.
He found a beautiful silvery black film. A quick test showed it was electrically conductive, but when he touched it with a torch, it didn’t bead up like metal. It burned like carbon.
Foutch returned to UI at the end of the summer, bringing the material with him. He showed it to chemistry professor Frank Cheng, an electrochemist with whom he’d studied as an undergraduate.
“I brought this interesting film to Frank and said, ‘This is really curious. I’m not sure what this is,’” Foutch says. “He was interested, so we ended up running a bunch of tests on it and finding that it had some pretty extraordinary properties.”
Today, Cheng, his colleagues in the UI College of Science and researchers across the university are studying this unique material — a previously undiscovered form of carbon dubbed GUITAR, for Graphite from University of Idaho Thermolyzed Asphalt Reaction — and its wide range of potential applications.
Foutch is now working toward his doctorate in chemistry, working with Cheng and his lab group on the material he found by chance.
“It was serendipity. It was an accident, as many great inventions or discoveries are,” Foutch says. “I’ve come to find that my role as a scientist is more to be able to see those serendipitous moments when they occur and seize the opportunity to find out about it.”
In the early days of GUITAR research, Cheng believed the material could be a type of graphene, which is a flat, honeycomb-shaped lattice of carbon atoms.
After years of testing, Cheng can now say with 90-percent certainty that GUITAR is not graphene — nor is it any other identified structural form, or allotrope, of carbon.
“I’ve come to discover that chemically, structurally, it’s quite a bit different than graphene,” he says. “It’s an allotrope that hasn’t been described in the literature yet. It’s rare to find a new allotrope.”
UI researchers earlier this year in the journal ChemElectroChem, citing the many characteristics that make GUITAR special.
For one, GUITAR is an excellent electrical conductor. It moves electrons even faster than graphene and doesn’t react chemically with other materials.
Cheng partnered with researchers in UI’s physics and chemical engineering departments to conduct detailed microscopic analyses of GUITAR. They concluded that it forms in interconnected layers with small pits that prevent leaking and corrosion.
And while other good carbon-based electrodes exist, UI researchers are confident that GUITAR is better.
“What I hope for GUITAR in the future is that this material is actually going to take over the carbon world,” says Isaiah Gyan, a UI alumni who spent five years studying GUITAR with Cheng while earning his doctoral degree. “I’ve been working with other carbon materials as controls, and I pretty much am convinced about what GUITAR can do that other materials cannot do.”
Cheng and other researchers in departments across UI are investigating GUITAR’s potential in a laundry list of applications.
This work was boosted in September by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust’s Commercialization Initiative, which granted more than $55,000 to help Cheng and UI physics professor David McIlroy work toward commercializing electrodes made with GUITAR and McIlroy’s invention, nanosprings.
By coating nanosprings — tiny coils of silica 500 times thinner than a human hair that don’t conduct electricity — in highly conductive GUITAR, Cheng and McIlroy can make an efficient, effective electrode that could be used in hydrogen-powered vehicles, chemical synthesis, batteries and more.
“It was a perfect solution,” McIlroy says. “GUITAR will coat anything and make it conductive.”
McIlroy and Cheng will work with Armando McDonald, a professor of renewable materials in UI’s College of Natural Resources, and an additional engineer to perfect their product, solve problems that could be barriers to commercialization and evaluate it compared to technologies currently on the market.
Foutch is particularly interested in GUITAR’s uses in water purification systems. Electrodes can neutralize toxic compounds and some microbes in place of chlorine, which is difficult to transport. And since GUITAR is an excellent electrode that can last a long time without corroding, it’s perfect for the job.
“The global impact of that particular project really interests me on an altruistic level,” Foutch says. “My hope and my vision is to be able to build a water purification device that can run off of a nine-volt battery, something that can be deployed in these small rural and suburban areas that are just rife with death and disease.”
A team of students in the UI College of Engineering also tested a water purification system that used GUITAR to remove hydrocarbons, such as diesel. Associate chemical engineering professor David Drown, who advised the students, says such applications have huge potential for Navy ships and other ocean-going vessels that make drinking water from seawater.
Drown has worked with a handful of student senior design teams examining GUITAR production and applications, such as using GUITAR to coat microscopic hollow-glass spheres for use in batteries.
And these possibilities are just the beginning.
“Industry is always looking for disruptive technology,” McIIroy says. “I think Frank is working on something that could really open a lot of opportunities.”
Cheng agrees. “There seems to be a lifetime of work you could put into this. No one else is working on this.”
Beyond its technological applications, GUITAR has provided amazing opportunities for the University of Idaho students working with it.
“Every one of us is using this material for something unique, and we strongly believe that if we had 10 new students now, they can do something different,” Isaiah Gyan says. “There’s so much it can do.”
Gyan, who graduated in May, credits his time working with GUITAR for giving him the skills and versatility he needed to secure a job as a technology development engineer at Intel.
Drown says his engineering students also benefit from the experience they gain working with a new material.
“What the senior design students are doing is looking at what the chemists have developed and coming up with concepts of how to produce it on a commercial scale, so it makes a real-world design experience,” he says.
And for Foutch, participating in research that uncovers the significance of the material he first observed is an incredible reward.
“I have kind of a rare opportunity as a graduate student. It feels like a very personal project to me,” he says. “It helped me realize that the education I received here as an undergraduate really did train me to be a good scientist.”
University of Idaho student Jeremy Foutch first observed GUITAR after burning oil shale, but any carbon-dense substance with a bit of sulfur and silicates will do the trick under the right conditions.
“Some of this was pure luck,” says Frank Cheng, the chemistry professor who leads GUITAR research at UI.
Researchers in Cheng’s lab use roofing tar to produce GUITAR because it’s inexpensive and produces a thick, even sample of the material. They buy it at the hardware store across the street from campus.
Taco-flavored corn chips, beans and Snickers bars work, too.
The researchers use two pieces of equipment to make GUITAR on the lab scale: a crucible, as Foutch first used, and a tube furnace, which operates at nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Both methods burn the starting material to produce fumes, which then deposit as thin layers of GUITAR on silicon wafers.
Foutch hopes to develop a way to use old tires, used plastic and other products that would otherwise go to waste, as well as capture and reuse the fumes that escape during the GUITAR production process.
“Turns out the nastier the carbon going in, the better the material coming out,” he says.