James Tour: The Mystery of the Origin of Life (Transcript)

Full text of chemist and nanotechnologist James Tour’s talk titled ‘The Mystery of the Origin of Life’.

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James Tour – American chemist and nanotechnologist

So I’m going to stand off to the side here because I’ve got to look back at them like in the old days where you have to look back at the slides and use a laser pointer rather than.

So go ahead to the next slide. This is just an overview of some of the work that we do in our group because many times there’ll be criticisms of those who speak at conferences like this, that they’re not practicing scientists, that they read papers and they write books. But I write very few books. In fact, I’ve only written one book and I’ll never do that again.

And I’ve written chapters for books, but only at great urging. Usually I just publish papers, and we publish papers in journals. That’s what we do in my world. And so we work in a number of different areas. And the reason I’m telling you all this is because I want you to see that I really am a practicing scientist. I rarely attend conferences like this. I’m usually in conferences with scientists and engineers.

But we work in an area called laser-induced scrapping. That’s where we can take, this is a polyamid sheet, and hit it with a laser and write patterns of graphene. Graphene is single sheets of graphite, one atom thick. And it’s the strongest material known at that level. And generally it’s made at high temperatures. And this is all done in the air with a laser. This is on bread. That’s not dropping down ink. That is converting the carbohydrate atoms in the molecules in the bread, these carbon atoms in that bread, to graphene. So we convert that. That’s a coconut we turn into a supercapacitor. So we can do it on food.

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You say, why would you want to write patterns on food? Well, why wouldn’t you?

So if you have, for example, a potato, and you can just mark it very quickly, just on every one of your plastic bottles, it’s a water bottle, it has a little laser scribe date. If we can laser scribe electronics very quickly, you would know exactly what field that potato was picked from, what date it was picked on. And if you build in electronics, you can put an E. coli sensor, a salmonella sensor. You could build in electronics into food very rapidly.

We split carbon nanotubes, and we use these in medicine, and we use these also in electronics and batteries. This is two terminal memory. This has all gone commercial now. This is commercial memory now, two terminal memory. We work in the area of traumatic brain injury and stroke. There’ll be a company launch this year for that, and also dementia.

We work on supercapacitors. This is where we’ve taken asphalt, and we can trap over 200 weight percent CO2 in it, and we use it for removing CO2 from natural gas. That’s all licensed by Apache. This is the leg of a cockroach that we can turn into graphene. I wanted to take something of negative carbon value. What has negative value? What do you pay people to take away from you that’s carbon?

I figured roaches, we’ve done it with dog feces. We can actually turn this into graphene.

Now, just to give you an idea of why you would want to do this, we did this with Girl Scout cookies. If you calculate all the carbon in a box of Girl Scout cookies, which is $4, and you convert that into graphene, that graphene that you could convert just from one box of Girl Scout cookies would be worth $15 billion, which shows you that the value of a material is not in the atoms itself. It’s in how those atoms are arranged.

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