Coal-Fired Tattoos, Biopsies Could Be the Future, Study Says

Glowing, fluorescent coal particles may soon light-up medicine and industry.

Rice University chemist James Tour holds up a vial of fluorescent particles drawn from coal.
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You're positively glowing.

Or, at least, you could be soon, if glowing coals make their way into biomedicine.

A new study by Rice University researchers has found that coal – broken down, chemically agitated and heated for a few hours until it becomes fluorescent – could potentially be used in medical imaging of human tissues and cells, such as to help guide doctors during surgery or as a marker in biopsies, or for drug delivery.

It could even ultimately make tattoos brighter.

"Street signs, clothing, anytime you want vivid color," said chemistry professor James Tour, who led the research team and published its findings with 13 other co-authors in the science journal Nature Communications.

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Fluorescent particles the size of molecules are already used in medicine and industry - in detergents like Tide, they make freshly washed clothing even brighter, Tour said. What's different about the particles from coal, however, is they would be comparatively cheaper to produce, and they'd last far longer.

Vials of fluorescent particles drawn from coal mixed with chemical agitators glow under a fluorescent lamp. Researchers believe the particles could one day be used in medicine and industry. (Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

"Coal is about the cheapest material on earth," Tour said. "$10 to $60 a ton. You can't buy water for that."

The coal particles are tiny, measuring anywhere from two to 40 nanometers – 50,000 would be needed just to cross the diameter of a single strand of hair. Generally, billions would be used at a time and provide "years and years of fluorescence."

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The coal particles are water-soluble and apparently nontoxic, but their use in medicine is still years away, Tour said.

Nevertheless, a friend's special glow could one day be just another injection from the doctor.

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