What happens when you embed graphene in “bacteria-produced cellulose”? You get a biofoam that could revolutionize the way people in developing countries obtain clean water. Scientists from Washington University in St. Louis who developed the biofoam published their findings in the journal Advanced Materials earlier this month.

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It seems there’s little graphene can’t do: the researchers used its powers of light absorption to design an inexpensive, light biofoam from which dirty water evaporates quickly to create drinking water. Working with a colleague from the Air Force Research Laboratory, seven scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have now developed a “bi-layered biofoam.”

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The biofoam is made of two layers of nanocellulose. Bacteria is involved in making both layers: the bottom layer is comprised purely of bacteria-produced nanocellulose, while the top layer is nanocellulose embedded with graphene oxide. The bottom layer acts similar to a sponge, pulling water up to the biofoam. When the water is pulled to the graphene oxide layer, the heat present due to graphene oxide makes the water evaporate. The resulting fresh water “can easily be collected from the top of the sheet,” according to the university.

Mechanical engineering and materials science associate professor Srikanth Singamaneni said in a press release, “We hope that for countries where there is ample sunlight, such as India, you’ll be able to take some dirty water, evaporate it using our material, and collect fresh water.”

Since the biofoam can be made inexpensively, the scientists think their vision of water-cleaning biofoam serving those in developing countries could easily become reality. Sigamaneni said, “Cellulose can be produced on a massive scale, and graphene oxide is extremely cheap – people can produce tons, truly tons, of it. Both materials going into this are highly scalable. So one can imagine making huge sheets of the biofoam.”

The scientists plan to continue their research, seeking additional applications of the revolutionary biofoam.

+ Washington University of St. Louis

Images via Washington University in St. Louis and Milaap.org on Flickr