Apr 30 2014, 9:16pm CDT | by Forbes
That was the question posed by researchers at the University of California, who wanted to know what would happen if graphene was released into the environment.
They found that graphene oxide nanoparticles spread quickly through surface water, which would mean that if the substance found its way into a lake or river, it could have the potential to harm plants, animals and perhaps even humans.
“The situation today is similar to where we were with chemicals and pharmaceuticals 30 years ago,” said Jacob D. Lanphere, a researcher at the University’s Riverside Bourns College of Engineering. “We just don’t know much about what happens when these engineered nanomaterials get into the ground or water. So we have to be proactive so we have the data available to promote sustainable applications of this technology in the future.”
Graphene oxide nanoparticles are made by oxidizing graphene, which is a super-thin material consisting of single carbon atoms. It is flexible, strong and conductive, meaning it could be used in computers, solar panels, phones and a huge number of other kinds of tech.
However, in a paper entitled “Stability and Transport of Graphene Oxide Nanoparticles in Groundwater and Surface Water” published in Environmental Engineering Science, Lanphere found that it was a powerful environmental contaminant.
When released into ground water, which tends to be harder and contains less organic material, graphene quickly becomes unstable and either settles or is removed from water. But in water above ground, it remains stable and quickly disperses.
If it was a harmless substance, this wouldn’t be so problematic. But another study last year found that if human beings ingest graphene, it could slice into cells and play havoc with the contents.
“These materials can be inhaled unintentionally, or they may be intentionally injected or implanted as components of new biomedical technologies,” said Robert Hurt, professor of engineering at Brown University. “So we want to understand how they interact with cells once inside the body.”
Before the study, scientists have assumed that graphene would always be found in perfect square sheets. The Brown team found that sharp, small pieces of graphene could break off. If these bits came into contact with human cells, they could slice them open and then be absorbed within them. It is not entirely clear what would happen next, as scientists are unclear about the long term effects of exposure to graphene.
Although graphene is already being used in small quantities, there is a long way to go before it becomes an everyday material. Before we do, it is important to think about the possible harm it could cause, as well as the huge benefits it offers.
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