Courtesy of Jeff Fitlow / Rice University

Turning food into electronics could help us eat and shop smarter.

Clara Olshansky
February 15, 2018

Scientists can now create thin sheets of graphite on foods like toast using lasers, and as one university is pointing out, that could have big implications for food safety and accountability. While eating the stuff inside a pencil may not sound super appetizing, you've got to remember that dogs have been eating homework for years. Okay, but actually, the ability to turn the surface of a food into graphene—very thin sheet of graphite—might have a huge influence on the relationship between food and electronics.

A lab at Rice University in Houston, TX recently posted a video explaining the process. Basically, graphene is a conductive material, so by making a graphene pattern on the surface of a certain food, they can create an electronic tracer to act as an RFID tag (or radio frequency identification tag), a small device that basically acts as a smarter version of a barcode, which can be used for tracking products.

This higher-tech version could potentially tell you where food has been and what it's been exposed to before getting to the grocery store shelf without the need for a separate label or sticker.

Rice University chemist James Tour has been able to convert the surfaces of wood, toast, coconuts, and potatoes to graphene. In the case of the toasted bread, Tour's lab used the carbon molecules from the bread's carbohydrates to create the graphene sheets, since graphene is a carbon alloy. Tour predicts that we might even be able to use these graphene tags as a heating circuit within the food to heat the food itself—for example, a self-baking potato. Tour says that the tags could also have sensors to let you know if your food is ripe, rotten or has E. coli or other undesirable microorganisms.

Along with the obvious health benefits of being able to see whether or not your food is infested with harmful bacteria, these graphene tags could also benefit us all by creating a norm of transparency within the food industry. If you can see exactly where your food comes from, you can know for sure whether those apples are from a local farm earlier this week, shipped from far away ages ago, or something in between. The more we know, the smarter we'll be able to eat.

[h/t Futurity]