19 Jun The Potential for Graphene in the Agriculture and Food Industries
Graphene is a one-atom-thick carbon material with properties that private sector and university research and development labs around the world are investigating for a wide range of applications. It is a naturally occurring conductor with many unique and advantageous properties. While the material was discovered and not invented, graphene can be applied in many inventive ways. The word “graphene” appears in thousands of issued patents and patent applications within the United States Patent and Trademark Office database. As a result of graphene’s widespread potential applications, businesses across many sectors need to consider its use in their intellectual property strategy.
This article first addresses the properties of graphene, followed by its ability to improve water treatment in the agriculture industry, and then its impact on the Internet of Things (“IoT”) and other aspects of the agriculture and food industries.
Properties of Graphene
Graphene has recently decreased in price because of improved production technologies. This means commercial applications are now more cost-effective. In 2016, graphene was named as one of the top ten emerging technologies by the World Economic Forum (“WEF”).
Technologies were ranked based on their potential to transform the industry and society. The WEF report concluded that the physical properties of graphene have immense promise. Not only is it stronger than steel and harder than a diamond, but it is light, transparent, and flexible as well.
Suitable for Water Treatment
Graphene has become so affordable that it can be used as a component in water filters. Such filters may increase the water supply for agriculture by making water treatment, such as desalination, more efficient and cost-effective. Moreover, a graphene water-filtering system can desalinate seawater without leaving any toxic residue like the waste byproduct of modern reverse osmosis techniques. This kind of nontoxic water treatment system can be used for groundwater cleanup in places like California’s Central Valley.
With its nanometer-sized holes, graphene can act as an extremely precise water filter with a fast water flow. It is able to distinguish between different molecules with a high degree of precision, filtering some molecules while letting others pass through freely. Conversely, the membranes used in reverse osmosis to filter salt from water are up to a thousand times thicker than graphene, thereby requiring extremely high pressure and lots of energy to force water through them. Thus, a graphene system could operate with much lower pressure and energy requirements and, therefore, purify water at a lower cost.
For example, the desalination plant built in Carlsbad, California is extremely expensive and has a toxic waste residue. The plant’s billion dollar cost per approximately 100,000 households is simply not a sustainable economic formula for the future. Moreover, the adoption of a graphene filter would cut down on the plant’s bio-growth problem, which reduces efficiency due to frequent cleanings. As a result, graphene may soon become the most suitable and sought-after material for water filters that can both increase and better clean the water supply.
Improving the Internet of Things (IoT)
Graphene’s properties enable better quality components to be used for the IoT which connects our everyday life experiences to the world of internet technology. The use of graphene in components of the IoT will provide higher quality actionable information more quickly than other materials. The properties of graphene make it particularly ideal to use in sensor technology. Graphene sensors will improve the speed and quality of detection for crop, food, and water testing. Graphene sensors will also be smaller, lighter, and more sensitive to changes in matter. This allows them to detect changes and work more quickly than traditional sensors.
Sensors incorporating graphene also have the potential to improve the speed, sensitivity, and analytical accuracy needed to detect the presence of contaminates in food. Pesticides herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are the most the commonly used substances to improve agricultural productivity but are potentially toxic in high concentrations. Accordingly, their presence needs to be evaluated before delivery to the consumer market. For processed foods, the preservatives, colorants, and other additives that are used to increase consumer appeal and/or shelf-life also need to be monitored.
High Capacity Batteries
A next generation of batteries based on graphene could be used in farm operations and for other purposes. Such batteries will hold a charge longer and recharge faster. Graphene’s low weight and great strength could eventually lead to the manufacturing of light weight components for farm equipment, which would be more fuel efficient.
Solar Power Storage
Lower-cost graphene solar cells could replace silicon PV cells to generate electricity for farm and food processing operations. Graphene reflects less, and absorbs more, light which produces electricity more efficiently. Greater efficiency means that a smaller surface of graphene could generate the same amount of electricity as a larger silicon surface. The development of a graphene solar cell could eliminate the need for higher-cost materials and the complicated manufacturing techniques needed for today’s PV solar cells.
Superior Food Packaging
Graphene can be used to create improved food packaging, which could help reduce food waste and increase food safety. Flexible, transparent, and moisture impermeable materials are critical for packaging applications in the food industry. Packaging can lengthen the life of a food product by incorporating a layer of graphene that substantially reduces permeability.
While not all of the applications discussed above can currently be commercialized on a cost-effective basis, they should be closely monitored by businesses operating in the agriculture and food industries. The use of graphene in water filters and components of the IoT can increase farm efficiency, aid in the production of cheaper energy, cheapen food processing, reduce food waste, and improve food safety. As a result, companies with good patent strategies will be the ones to transform the current industries with faster, cheaper, and better performing product features.