Nobel-winning tech at heart of rubber band improvements

By Kelly P. Kissel

The Associated Press

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — While it may seem a stretch, an Arkansas company and a university in southeastern England want to use Nobel Prize-winning technology to build a better rubber band.

The partnership between Alliance Rubber and the University of Sussex is one of many eyeing graphene for its electrical and thermal properties. Projects underway around the world include using graphene to track sun exposure, wick heat out of athletic shoes and create bandages that signal when they should be changed.

A 95-year-old rubber company sees its opportunity in health care and agriculture.

“We’ve had a history of being an innovator, as much as you can be an innovator in the world of rubber bands,” said Jason Risner, Alliance’s director of business strategy.

Hot Springs-based Alliance makes more than 15 million pounds of rubber bands a year. Some are brightly dyed, others are scented and some were embossed long before the “Livestrong” bracelet. A company history says that, early on, the company’s founder persuaded the Tulsa World to use rubber bands to keep newspapers intact on a windy day.

Graphene, an ultrathin sheet of graphite, has far greater potential.

“There’s this perfect sheet of material. It’s more conductive than copper,” and, for its size, “it’s the toughest material ever produced,” said Alan Dalton, a professor of experimental physics at the University of Sussex. The material is virtually transparent, too, which makes it a potential replacement for indium tin oxide currently used on smart phone screens.

Graphene is considered the first stable two-dimensional material. A pair of scientists at the University of Manchester won the Nobel Prize in physics after isolating graphene flakes in 2004 by applying a piece of Scotch tape to a block of graphite and pulling off material a million times thinner than a human hair.

“Prior to the discovery (at Manchester), people thought it wasn’t possible to have a truly two-dimensional material that would be stable,” said Daniel Sheehy, an associate professor of physics at Louisiana State University who is not involved in the Alliance-Sussex project. “It’s much floppier than a piece of paper but has a very strong tensile strength.”

Risner said graphene-infused rubber bands would take about four times as much pressure to break, but that it’s not what the company is after: “We don’t want to put ourselves out of business.”

Dalton and two other researchers who visited Alliance’s plant this spring have merged graphene into rubber after using sonic energy to separate it from graphite. The key is determining the best mix for different products and producing it in a way that makes it financially worthwhile.

Graphene atoms form a lattice sensitive enough to detect subtle changes and movements, which would allow it to gauge blood pressure, heart rates and temperature when worn in a band around the wrist, Dalton said. It would need to be outfitted with a small power source.

“It’s like Fitbit technology but at a fraction of the cost,” Dalton said. “You can have sensors that are extraordinarily cheap and can be used in the third world and save lives.”

In the grocery store, graphene bands could be programmed to change color if perishable goods are held at the wrong temperature or for too long.

Sheehy, at LSU, has studied graphene’s transparency, hoping to find other ways of developing new products at a manageable cost.

“In the initial projects, they took a piece of graphite, put a piece of Scotch tape on it and ripped it off,” Sheehy said. “Obviously, that’s not going to work for mass production.”