Miracle Material Graphene Could Be Pollutant Of The Future

Apr 30 2014, 9:16pm CDT | by

To its many fans, graphene is a wonder substance set to transform the world. But could it also pollute the planet at the same time?

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.

Do you know anything about the possible health implications of graphene exposure? Get in touch at jasper.hamill@gmail.com or via Twitter.

 
 
 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/30" rel="author">Forbes</a>
Forbes is among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders, providing them the uncompromising commentary, concise analysis, relevant tools and real-time reporting they need to succeed at work, profit from investing and have fun with the rewards of winning.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

Need for Speed Reboot is Coming This Fall
Need for Speed Reboot is Coming This Fall
EA will release a complete new Need for Speed this fall. The video game giant just released a teaser video and the first Need for Speed Gameplay video will be revealed in June.
 
 
Google Self-Driving Cars to Hit Public Roads this Summer
Google Self-Driving Cars to Hit Public Roads this Summer
Google announced today that Google Car prototype vehicles will leave the test track and hit the familiar roads of Mountain View.
 
 
Google Search Analytics Launched in Web Master Tools
Google Search Analytics Launched in Web Master Tools
Google officially announced the new Search Analytics feature in Webmaster tools.
 
 
T-Mobile Hits Verizon with new 'Never Settle Trial' Campaign
T-Mobile Hits Verizon with new 'Never Settle Trial' Campaign
In case customers don't feel satisfied, T-Mobile will pay for them to shift back to Verizon