Sodium; ethanol; heat; sound waves: those easy-to-come-by, cheap ingredients are all that John Stride and his team at the University of New South Wales in Australia needed to make a couple of grams of pure carbon in the form of graphene.
Graphene is just one atom thick and looks like molecular chicken wire. First isolated in 2004, it is the strongest material known, and should make tomorrow's mix of power-hungry consumer gadgets lighter and more efficient. The problem has been that graphene is devilishly difficult to manufacture in large amounts.
Stride and his colleagues first reacted ethanol and sodium, then broke down a solid intermediate of the reaction by heating. This generated a fused pack of graphene sheets that they then broke apart with gentle sonication.