Graphene 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