Graphene Miracle Material or Potential Hazard?

Graphene Miracle Material or Potential HazardGraphene has been hailed as a miraculous material, capable of many wonderful applications, but there may be a darker side. Those working with the substance have noted that it could have potentially hazardous and harmful effects.

Graphene has made news headlines again this week as scientists have been trying to use it to create a new kind of technological contact lens. The lens would allow the user to see in infrared light. Much like the aliens of the movie Predator, the wearer of such a device would have an advantage in combat situations, as they would be able to see the heat signature of their assailants and see in the dark. This kind of technology also has more domestic uses; doctors would be able to monitor blood flow or clots in their patients. But how safe is it?

Graphene has long been around humanity. Every school child for the past 100 years at least has come into contact with it in its domestic form. This is because graphene is made out of graphite, which you can find in any standard pencil. Graphene on its own is a substance the thickness of a single atom. Surprisingly, despite its thinness, it is considered the world’s strongest material. If steel is reduced down to the same thickness, graphene wins in any battle of strength. It is said to be about 200 times stronger than steel. It has also been compared to silicon as it is flexible and conducts heat and electricity well. It is also versatile and currently it is being optimised in many applications including: ink, batteries, flexible touch screens, paint, tennis rackets, windows, tires, windows and even living tissue.

However, potentially miracle materials in the past have been discovered to have shocking consequences. The most prominent of these is the discovery of radium. For a while in the early 1900s, radium was in everything from watches to toothpaste to salt. However, it was soon discovered that it was incredibly dangerous to humans. In fact, the effects were not even widely known until a famous law case involving the “radium girls” who worked in a watch factory. It was their job to paint the radium on the clock faces and in between dabs they would lick the end of the brush to make it come to a point again. This meant they ingested the radium and died slow, painful deaths as a result.  Could graphene harbor similar potential hazards?

In the case of graphene, several possible risks have been found with the substance. The ultra-thin carbon can be produced in a certain form which creates “nanoplateles,” microscopic disk-shaped particles. The extra flexibility of graphene in this form allows it to be incorporated into rubber and plastic to give these materials new properties. However, the platelets are airborne, behaving as if they are miniature frisbees. This aerodynamic feature could be  harmful to humans if inhaled, as they would become lodged in the lungs and cause damage or unseen health problems. Secondly, the one atom thick substance is thinner than a human cell and thus can pierce through. This occurs mostly at the point of extraction. The particles of graphene do not come off in smooth circles, but rather they appear as jagged flakes. These jagged edges can pierce the wall of a cell causing disruption of the cell’s normal functions.  This could cause damage or health conditions.

Thus although graphene is being touted as a miracle material, it needs to be studied and worked on so that any potential hazards are fully explored before it is released into the wider community. Otherwise history will repeat itself as seen with the radium distaser and future generations will look back on their history with a shake of their heads.

By Sara Watson

Sources:

BBC
Graphene Research Center
International Business Times
CBS News
PNAS

3 Responses to "Graphene Miracle Material or Potential Hazard?"

  1. Kenny   March 20, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    First of all, we’re talking about carbon. We, humans, exist in most of a soup of water (hydro and oxygen) and carbon + a couple dozen less present elements. Therefore it is a huge part of us, and in its purest form compatible, so we do not reject it like we would with other materials. (I know this may sound scary).

    The danger lies in how we create the graphene (and the solvents we usein that process ). The article above is mentioning the dangers that arise in a top-down method to create the graphene, called exfoliation. And most of these platelets aren’t even graphene, but graphene-oxide or multiple layers of graphene. Layers that are still bounded in height with Vanderwaals forces.

    Perhaps those can come out crunched and hooked and not always fitting the forms of the computer models, true I believe. We really should be careful what we bring into the market. But let’s not forget there are other ways to create graphene where scientist are in better control to create this ‘graphene’.

    I’m pro graphene – and I’ll tell you why. Unleashed from every idea that is brought to us by tv, DVD, magazines or some crazy idea movie I believe we can do some great things with this surface, because that is what is – singe layer graphene – nothing but a surface.

    Let me put it this way: The upper side of the material exist of the same atoms as the down side.

    ‘G’ in definition has no volume no bulk like other 3D materials or objects.) Every spic of energy brought by an external source can be captured and travel along a membrane that has almost no resistant to transport electrons.

    This means there is less friction – less heat created and less loss. Can you imagine a world where all of our machines would stop heating up this place because of the loss that exist when we transfer the electrons from one place to another so can eventually play our goodies and types our texts, yes I’m guilty. But I’m sure it can help to lower the Co² problem in that way. If not this hexagonal shaped layer ( the hexagonal form is a key variable in the superiority of graphene ) can brings other ways to help with that problem.

    Scientist can capture it, the CO² I mean, and knock of the carbon atom and release the O’s (breathe, breathe 🙂 ) and from the C’s we can make new material again … .

    And I’m only naming a couple of possibilities.

    The thing is – in my believe – this invention can wipe off existing industries, where ‘the money’ – and the power that comes with the money – is now.

    I believe some people are really scared about the possible implications of this ‘material’.

    There is lots more to discover about graphene while most of the people do not really understand what is going on.

    And as mentioned, Graphene is not bad – it is us. Perhaps it is us being bad.

    Reply
    • eagleon   May 27, 2014 at 7:51 am

      The reason we’re made mostly of carbon is that carbon is incredibly versatile in how its bonds can be configured. There are organic compounds (made from the same stuff as us) that cause truly horrific death, birth defect, etc. and ones that are entirely inert and metabolized easily by the body. You simply cannot make blanket statements about a chemical’s safety (good or bad) without examining what it does to your health first, and because of how biocompatible organic materials are, they are especially suspect, not the other way around.

      Reply
  2. ryan   March 20, 2014 at 11:42 am

    so pretty much we could have a new weapon on our hands

    Reply

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