Many of the products and electronic devices we use produce waste. While this waste may not seem like an issue, it is piling up around the globe, which leads to increasing problems with pollution. Islands of trash are currently floating in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, potentially harming marine life in a variety of ways that include being mistaken for food.
Because of the growing waste problem, many organizations are trying to find ways to reduce waste production, or even turn waste products into something useful. One team working on this includes researchers from the Institut national da la recherche scientifique (INRS) in Quebec who, using waste from breweries, are now hoping to build a new type of nanotechnologies called quantum dots.
What Are Quantum Dots?
Quantum dots are nanotech devices used in medicine, electronics, imaging, or information storage. Their nano-scale crystal structure allows them to transport electrons and emit light, making them useful for imaging processes. Depending on the shape of the quantum dot crystal, or what it is made out of, its properties change. It can emit a variety of colors, indicating different energy levels just from changes in its shape. On account of such properties, many companies are looking into using quantum dots to develop next-generation electronics.
Unfortunately, many quantum dots are made from heavy metals, such as cadmium. This can cause them to be toxic, which also leads to difficulties for their applications in medicine. Add to this the fact that it can also make them expensive. Currently, scientists are looking into carbon as a replacement for making this technology more accessible, which lead the team at INRS to focus on creating a new type of quantum dot made from what might seem like an unlikely source: beer waste.
Analysis: Quantum Dots and Beer
To take beer waste and turn it into technology, the researchers collaborated with a team from the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS). The researchers hoped to use spent grains as the source of carbon for their new quantum dots. According to Professor Federico Rosei of INRS, “The use of spent grain highlights both an eco-responsible approach to waste management and an alternative raw material for the synthesis of carbon quantum dots, from a circular economy perspective.” The spent grain was not only a carbon source but was already enriched with nitrogen and phosphorus, eliminating the need for further purification.
The experiment began with the researchers microwaving the beer waste until it was reduced to a black powder. This substance was then put into a wide variety of solutions before it could be used in the quantum dot process. While the experiment was successful, the scientists hoped to continue testing their process for the best type of waste possible.
Outlook: More Ways to Use a Beer
While the experiment was far from orthodox, the researchers enjoyed the process, “This research was a lot of fun, lighting up what we can do with the beer byproducts,” explained the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Multifunctional Construction Materials at ÉTS, Claudiane Ouellet-Plamondon.
“Moreover, ÉTS is located on the site of the former Dow Brewery, one of the main breweries in Quebec until the 1960s.”
“So there is a lot of historical and heritage link to this work,” Ouellet-Plamondon said.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: https://kennacastleberry.com/