Research and development
In Manchester a £61 million National Graphene Institute has been established. It hosted a Graphene Week in June 2015 and is committed to developing innovative and safe applications.
Amid all the excitement surrounding graphene, some commentators have put forward warnings that this miracle material has similarities with asbestos, which was previously known as a ‘magic substance’.
A 2013 paper from Brown University reviewed how jagged graphene could slice into cell membranes and postulated that graphene sheets “could be big trouble for human cells”.
This research concluded that sharp corners of jagged protrusions along the edges of graphene sheets can pierce cell membranes in human lungs, skin and immune cells. After the cell is pierced, the entire sheet can be pulled into the cell, which can result in cellular disruption. Graphene could be dangerous to both humans and the environment.
As with any nano material, the fact that the composite material is so small creates the potential that it can be inhaled unintentionally, and it is difficult to control its impact on the environment.
Another study from the University of California examined how graphene oxide particles became less stable in groundwater sources and would settle out, or be removed in sub-surface environments. However, in lakes or rivers the particles were more stable and stayed under the surface.
The co-author Jacob D Lanphere said, “We just don’t know much about what happens when these engineered nanomaterials get into the ground or water and we have to be proactive to promote sustainable applications in the future”.
A study by Cyrill Bussy in 2013 on ‘Safety Considerations’ concluded that in view of varied applications of graphene, generalisations about the toxicity as a whole will be “inaccurate, possibly misleading and should be avoided”. Indeed, it may be that graphene is no more harmful as one commentator suggests “as a school child licking their pencil”.