Rice University

Coal yields plenty of graphene quantum dots

The prospect of turning coal into fluorescent particles may sound too good to be true, but the possibility exists, thanks to scientists at Rice University.

The Rice lab of chemist James Tour found simple methods to reduce three kinds of coal into graphene quantum dots (GQDs), microscopic discs of atom-thick graphene oxide that could be used in medical imaging as well as sensing, electronic and photovoltaic applications.

The find was reported today in the journal Nature Communications.

Band gaps determine how a semiconducting material carries an electric current. In quantum dots, band gaps are responsible for their fluorescence and can be tuned by changing the dots' size. The process by Tour and company allows a measure of control over their size, generally from 2 to 20 nanometers, depending on the source of the coal.

There are many ways to make GQDs now, but most are expensive and produce very small quantities, Tour said. Though another Rice lab found a way last year to make GQDs from relatively cheap carbon fiber, coal promises greater quantities of GQDs made even cheaper in one chemical step, he said.

"We wanted to see what's there in coal that might be interesting, so we put it through a very simple oxidation procedure," Tour explained. That involved crushing the coal and bathing it in acid solutions to break the bonds that hold the tiny graphene domains together.

"You can't just take a piece of graphene and easily chop it up this small," he said.

Tour depended on the lab of Rice chemist and co-author Angel Martí to help characterize the product. It turned out different types of coal produced different types of dots. GQDs were derived from bituminous coal, anthracite and coke, a byproduct of oil refining.

The coals were each sonicated in nitric and sulfuric acids and heated for 24 hours. Bituminous coal produced GQDs between 2 and 4 nanometers wide. Coke produced GQDs between 4 and 8 nanometers, and anthracite made stacked structures from 18 to 40 nanometers, with small round layers atop larger, thinner layers. (Just to see what would happen, the researchers treated graphite flakes with the same process and got mostly smaller graphite flakes.)

Tour said the dots are water-soluble, and early tests have shown them to be nontoxic. That offers the promise that GQDs may serve as effective antioxidants, he said.

Medical imaging could also benefit greatly, as the dots show robust performance as fluorescent agents