Environment

Wonder-material graphene could be dangerous to humans and the environment

Wonder-material graphene could...
Jacob D Lanphere, a Ph.D. student at UC Riverside, holds a sample of graphene oxide
Jacob D Lanphere, a Ph.D. student at UC Riverside, holds a sample of graphene oxide
View 3 Images
Jacob D Lanphere, left, and Corey Luth, work in the lab of their adviser Sharon Walker
1/3
Jacob D Lanphere, left, and Corey Luth, work in the lab of their adviser Sharon Walker
Jacob D Lanphere, a Ph.D. student at UC Riverside, holds a sample of graphene oxide
2/3
Jacob D Lanphere, a Ph.D. student at UC Riverside, holds a sample of graphene oxide
The bottom corner of a piece of graphene penetrates a cell membrane - mechanical properties like rough edges and sharp corners can make graphene dangerous to human cells. Scale bar represents two microns. (Image: Kane lab/Brown University)
3/3
The bottom corner of a piece of graphene penetrates a cell membrane - mechanical properties like rough edges and sharp corners can make graphene dangerous to human cells. Scale bar represents two microns. (Image: Kane lab/Brown University)

I've been waiting for some time now to write a headline along the lines of "scientists discover thing that graphene is not amazing at" ... and here it is. Everybody’s favorite nanomaterial may have a plethora of near-magical properties, but as it turns out, it could also be bad for the environment – and bad for you, too.

It’s easy to get carried away when you start talking about graphene. Comprised of single atom thick layers of carbon, graphene is incredibly light, incredibly strong, extremely flexible and highly conductive both of heat and electricity. Its properties hold the promise of outright technological revolution in so many fields that it has been called a wonder material.

But it’s only been 10 years since graphene was first isolated in the laboratory, and as researchers and industries scramble to bring graphene out of the lab and into a vast range of commercial applications, far less money is being spent examining its potential negative effects.

Two recent studies give us a less than rosy angle. In the first, a team of biologists, engineers and material scientists at Brown University examined graphene’s potential toxicity in human cells. They found that the jagged edges of graphene nanoparticles, super sharp and super strong, easily pierced through cell membranes in human lung, skin and immune cells, suggesting the potential to do serious damage in humans and other animals.

The bottom corner of a piece of graphene penetrates a cell membrane - mechanical properties like rough edges and sharp corners can make graphene dangerous to human cells. Scale bar represents two microns. (Image: Kane lab/Brown University)
The bottom corner of a piece of graphene penetrates a cell membrane - mechanical properties like rough edges and sharp corners can make graphene dangerous to human cells. Scale bar represents two microns. (Image: Kane lab/Brown University)

"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 and one of the study’s authors. "So we want to understand how they interact with cells once inside the body."

Another study by a team from University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering examined how graphene oxide nanoparticles might interact with the environment if they found their way into surface or ground water sources.

The team found that in groundwater sources, where there’s little organic material and the water has a higher degree of hardness, graphene oxide nanoparticles tended to become less stable and would eventually settle out or be removed in sub-surface environments.

Jacob D Lanphere, left, and Corey Luth, work in the lab of their adviser Sharon Walker
Jacob D Lanphere, left, and Corey Luth, work in the lab of their adviser Sharon Walker

But in surface water such as lakes or rivers, where there’s more organic material and less hardness, the particles stayed much more stable and showed a tendency to travel further, particularly under the surface.

So a spill of these kinds of nanoparticles would appear to have the potential to cause harm to organic matter, plants, fish, animals, and humans. The affected area could be quick to spread, and could take some time to become safe again.

"The situation today is similar to where we were with chemicals and pharmaceuticals 30 years ago," said the paper’s co-author Jacob D. Lanphere. "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."

At this stage, the Material Safety Data Sheet governing the industrial use of graphene is incomplete. It’s listed as a potential irritant of skin and eyes, and potentially hazardous to breathe in or ingest. No information is available on whether it has carcinogenic effects or potential developmental toxicity.

But researchers from the first study point out that this is a material in its infancy, and as a man-made material, there are opportunities at this early stage to examine and understand the potential harmful properties of graphene and try to engineer them out. We’ve got a few years yet before graphene really starts being a big presence in our lives, so the challenge is set to work out how to make it as safe as possible for ourselves and our planet.

The Brown University research was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The UC Riverside paper was published in a special issue of the journal Environmental Engineering Science.

Sources: Brown University, UC Riverside

23 comments
Roger Hudson
So graphene could be harmful? show me a school kid that never licked a pencil, and that's graphene... Point made
ClauS
@Roger H. - That's graphite, check again, no points here,
MG48
I was glad to see an article about the harmful effects something new may have on humans or the environment. We rarely get to see follow ups on new technology like this. We see new battery, circuits, energy and materials technologies that look promising but often the harmful details are not talked about or shared in the article. Thanks for the article Gizmag!
Ken Dawson
So many technologies are rushed out the door while scientists focus on the positive aspects... rarely do they ask: "Is this harmful?" The Romans thought they were geniuses with their plates, goblets, and utensils made from lead. Such a miraculous metal! So easy to shape and form... and cheap too... And, Agent Orange was a miracle herbicide at the time. So effective at clearing away vegetation. In retrospect (and after much research) it turned out that both of these ideas were really, really bad for human health. I'm waiting for the future research to show that holding 1W radio transmitters next to your head (i.e., cellphones) is also a really dumb idea that probably causes a slough of health problems. People will look at our society holding phones up to our head the way we look at the Romans eating with lead forks. Just because it's got useful properties doesn't mean that it's safe for human consumption.
The Skud
Hopefully, more research will identify and solve suggested problems as they arise - I just hope peole are not ignored in the rush for profit from this new material. We (now) know all about the problems with asbestos, we do not need these worries with graphene 10-20 years down the track when half the original makers have disappeared from the marketplace with nobody to sue.
Scion
Remember that asbestos was hailed as a miracle material? Turns out it kills pretty much everyone that comes in contact with it in a slow and horrible way sometimes 30 or more years later. Any company that doesn't full investigate graphene is asking for the billion dollar repercussions that asbestos had. Any nation more requiring thorough investigation of entirely new things / materials is asking for even greater burden; both economic and social. I'll let your imagination think up all the new miracle technologies we are rushing forward with due to their potential economic benefit without considering the longer term detriment.
Stuart Wilshaw
Let's be realistic, these dangers apply to all nano-materials not just graphene. Because of their size they have the ability to bypass the body's normal defenses with as yet unknown effects both short and long term. A lot more caution is needed before they are rushed out into general use. I can remember as a young lad back in the 1950s seeing advertisements extolling the beneficial effects of a 'tonic water' containing radon salts; try selling that now!
Mel Tisdale
Graphene would appear to be capable of fulfilling many important roles in society, especially with regard to its electrical conductivity in the light of copper ores now down to between 2 and 5 percent. One hopes that following the experience with asbestos, there are regulatory instruments in place to ensure protection from any possible long-term harm. However, if that is not the case, then perhaps there should be a levy raised on all sales of graphene that can be used to provide a compensation fund should any problem from its use manifest itself many years hence. The only obvious alternatives are to either place a ban on its use until proven safe, or to apply it and keep our fingers crossed. Neither is particularly attractive, to say the least.
pmshah
One should not compare asbestos with graphene. Former is naturally occurring while the latter is man made. The first led to health problems leading to death because of breathing in the fine fibers without proper precautions. Of course these were unknown hazards. At least with graphene we do have methods for studying its detrimental effects. After all is said and done we will still end up with some kind of disaster similar to thalidomide babies because of incomplete or incompetent testing and big profits !
DiazBrito
Good to see man is starting to double check the mess they can do to itself & the environment if it's not careful. Didn't like the safe as possible part, we should just make things safe and advance the planet & tech that way. Wishful thinking maybe, but better than fixing disasters later.