SCIENCE
01/27/2012 11:11 am ET

Graphene Can Distill Alcohol, Study Says

Graphene has been hailed as the world’s thinnest, stiffest, and strongest material. But now scientists are raising a toast to the new discovery that the miracle substance can be used to distill alcohol.

A paper in the journal Science recently reported that graphene-based membranes are impervious to just about every gas and most liquids, except for water. This was all well and good, but the researchers, from the University of Manchester in England decided to try one more experiment:

"Just for a laugh, we sealed a bottle of vodka with our membranes and found that the distilled solution became stronger and stronger with time," another Manchester physicist, Dr. Rahul Nair, said in the statement. "Neither of us drinks vodka but it was great fun to do the experiment."

Graphene is made of one-atom deep sheets of carbon, laced together in a honeycomb-like pattern. It could hold the key to developing a number of futuristic products, including paper-thin fold-up mobile phones, wallpaper-thin lighting panels, and the next generation of ultra-light aircraft. On its own, the fact that graphene is permeable to water but not other substances has scientists excited.

"Helium gas is hard to stop," Sir Andre Geim, a professor of physics at the university, said in a written statement. "It slowly leaks even through a millimeter-thick window glass, but our ultra-thin films completely block it. At the same time, water evaporates through them unimpeded. [These] materials cannot behave any stranger. You cannot help wondering what else graphene has in store for us."

Dr. Nair offered the following explanation for graphene's odd little trick:

"Graphene oxide sheets arrange in such a way that between them there is room for exactly one layer of water molecules. They arrange themselves in one-molecule-thick sheets of ice which slide along the graphene surface with practically no friction.

What other secrets might graphene hold?

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