Could wonder material graphene be harmful to humans?

Barely a week (sometimes barely a day) goes by without news of a new graphene breakthrough.

First discovered at the University of Manchester in 2009 by Professors Andre Geim and Konstatin Novoselov, the so-called wonder material is both strong and lightweight, and an incredible conductor of both heat and electricity.

These properties have led many to believe that it could bring about a technological revolution in a number of fields, namely the electronics industry.

Now, however, two separate studies carried out in the US have shown that graphene may in fact be harmful to human cells and the environment.

In the first, a team of biologists, engineers and material scientists from Brown University examined graphene's potential toxicity in human cells. They found that the jagged edges of graphene nanoparticles easily pierced through cell membranes in human lung, skin and immune cells, suggesting the potential to do serious damage in humans and other animals.

"These materials can be inhaled unintentionally, or they may be intentionally injected or implanted as components of new biomedical technologies," said engineering professor Robert Hurt. "So we want to understand how they interact with cells once inside the body."

The researchers now plan to look in more detail into what happens once a graphene sheet gets inside the cell. But they say this initial study provides an important start in understanding the potential for graphene toxicity.

The second study was carried out by researchers from the University of California, Riverside's Bourns College of Engineering. It showed that graphene oxide sheets are extremely mobile in water and likely to cause negative environmental impacts if spilled.

"The situation today is similar to where we were with chemicals and pharmaceuticals 30 years ago," said graduate student Jacob 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."

In groundwater, which typically has a higher degree of hardness and a lower concentration of natural organic matter, the researchers found that the graphene oxide nanoparticles became less stable and eventually settled out in subsurface environments.

In surface waters, however, where there is more organic material and less hardness, the nanoparticles remained stable and moved farther apart, especially in the subsurface layers of the water bodies.

Because graphene is still in its infancy, little is known about whether or not it has carcinogenic effects or potential developmental toxicity.

The researchers from Brown University do point out, however, that because of this there are opportunities to examine and understand its potential harmful properties and try to engineer them out.

"This is about the safe design of nanomaterials," Prof Hurt noted. "They're manmade materials, so we should be able to be clever and make them safer."

Laura Hopperton

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