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Research warns of graphene's environmental impact

Research warns of graphene's environmental impact

Jacob Lanphere, seen holding a sample of graphene oxide, warns that more research is required into the wonder-material's environmental impact.

Researchers have warned that the wonder-material graphene may have a hidden negative environmental impact, even as the race to use the material to revolutionise the field of electronics becomes increasingly competitive.

Graphene, at its heart, is a simple material. A carbon allotrope arranged in a lattice just one atom thick, it can be made in a process as simple as peeling sticky-tape off a block of graphite. It has found its way in batteries and is used in the lab to create everything from 300GHz transistors to terabit-capable wireless antennas. Millions of pounds in research money has been dedicated to finding new uses for graphene so far, and that progress doesn't look like slowing any time soon.

At least, so long as research by the University of California at Riverside doesn't derail the process. In a study led by graduate student Jacob Lanphere, graphene oxide has been found to be 'very mobile' in surface water - meaning that it could have significant environmental impacts if released, by accident or design, into rivers and streams.

'The situation today is similar to where we were with chemicals and pharmaceuticals 30 years ago,' claimed Lanphere of his team's research into graphene. 'We just don’t know much about what happens when these engineered nanomaterials get into the ground or water. We have to be proactive so we have the data available to promote sustainable applications of this technology in the future.'

The study found that graphene has little impact in ground water, but that its graphene oxide form - created when graphene is exposed to air - could move considerable distances in surface water like rivers and streams. The result, the team claim, is the possibility for graphene oxide to spread rapidly throughout an ecosystem with as-yet unknown environmental effects. Although graphene is normally locked away inside electronic components, its widespread use would lead to its presence in landfills and other dumping grounds - and with recent studies suggesting there may be a toxicity to graphene, it's clear that careful study is required.

The team's paper, Stability and Transport of Graphene Oxide Nanoparticles in Groundwater and Surface Water, is published in the Environmental Engineering Science Journal.

14 Comments

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Dave Lister 30th April 2014, 10:03 Quote
Interesting, so they need to start running tests to see how it will effect living organisms before any widespread use in electronics. Somehow I don't see that happening, there is no money to be made in being responsible !
Spraduke 30th April 2014, 10:30 Quote
I'm failing to see how what is 100% carbon which has oxidised can be toxic to any carbon based life form, it might be possible for it to cause some other affect, suffocation perhaps but toxic? Unlikely.
Gareth Halfacree 30th April 2014, 10:33 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Spraduke
I'm failing to see how what is 100% carbon which has oxidised can be toxic to any carbon based life form, it might be possible for it to cause some other affect, suffocation perhaps but toxic? Unlikely.
It's not the material itself, but its construction: graphene [allegedly] suffers from what is known as nanotoxicity. Try this paper from January for a detailed explanation.

Think of it like this: I could easily eat a chunk of asbestos with little ill-effect, but if small particles of it get airborne and I breathe 'em in then I'm in serious trouble.
Fused 30th April 2014, 10:35 Quote
It could pay to invest in research into its environmental impacts ahead of its wide scale use in case it is found to have some particularly damaging properties to the environment or human health which might affect how company mass produces and disposes of future devices. Could save them in the long run to know about these things in advance. Environmental disaster fines are something I would hope most companies are looking to avoid (by putting in correct safety and disposal procedures not by avoiding blame or prior knowledge)

Either way I think there is sometime before (even if) we see graphene make it into mass production. I am sure governments are willing to fund these kind of research projects as its easy to see what the potential benefit to society might be
Fused 30th April 2014, 10:45 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Spraduke
I'm failing to see how what is 100% carbon which has oxidised can be toxic to any carbon based life form, it might be possible for it to cause some other affect, suffocation perhaps but toxic? Unlikely.

There are plenty oxides of carbon which are toxic (Carbon monoxide for example) which I guess would suffocate you but by the time it got to that concentration the toxic effect it has on your blood has already killed you. Anyway..

I think Gareth has pretty much got it. I could also see that small enough fragments of graphene or graphene oxide once inside you could interact with biomolecules in all sorts of ways, some of which could be toxic, it just isnt known.
Spraduke 30th April 2014, 11:32 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Fused
Quote:
Originally Posted by Spraduke
I'm failing to see how what is 100% carbon which has oxidised can be toxic to any carbon based life form, it might be possible for it to cause some other affect, suffocation perhaps but toxic? Unlikely.

There are plenty oxides of carbon which are toxic (Carbon monoxide for example) which I guess would suffocate you but by the time it got to that concentration the toxic effect it has on your blood has already killed you. Anyway..

I think Gareth has pretty much got it. I could also see that small enough fragments of graphene or graphene oxide once inside you could interact with biomolecules in all sorts of ways, some of which could be toxic, it just isnt known.

Fair points, obviously carbon monoxide needs to be inhaled and I was primarily thinking ingestion / absorption by plant life. Scientific discovery is full of unexpected side effects (CFC's etc.) so it definitely pays to find out these things before the disaster!
Alecto 30th April 2014, 17:57 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Spraduke
I'm failing to see how what is 100% carbon which has oxidised can be toxic to any carbon based life form, it might be possible for it to cause some other affect, suffocation perhaps but toxic? Unlikely.

Anything made of carbon (say coal or charcoal for example) that has been oxidized to the monoxide form (CO) kills quite a number of people each year.
Gambler FEX online 30th April 2014, 21:57 Quote
They use microsilver in toothpaste these days and it might have a bad effect on beneficial bacteria in nature.
Corky42 1st May 2014, 07:52 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gambler FEX online
They use microsilver in toothpaste these days and it might have a bad effect on beneficial bacteria in nature.

We have use all sorts of things that have caused harm in the past, like lead in petrol that made us all go a bit loopy, or radium in toothpaste, and how about when women ate arsenic to improve their complexion.
At least we are learning from past mistakes and researching the potential harm that could be done before wide spread use.
benji2412 1st May 2014, 10:36 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Corky42
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gambler FEX online
They use microsilver in toothpaste these days and it might have a bad effect on beneficial bacteria in nature.

We have use all sorts of things that have caused harm in the past, like lead in petrol that made us all go a bit loopy, or radium in toothpaste, and how about when women ate arsenic to improve their complexion.
At least we are learning from past mistakes and researching the potential harm that could be done before wide spread use.

Don't forget the barium suppositories!
[USRF]Obiwan 1st May 2014, 13:11 Quote
Well at least they are willing to investigate the impact. Not what they did with the plastic that is killing all live as we speak.
DXR_13KE 1st May 2014, 14:08 Quote
It is as if current tech does not use poisonous stuff.
schmidtbag 1st May 2014, 14:43 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by DXR_13KE
It is as if current tech does not use poisonous stuff.

Exactly. Graphene is negligible in toxicity compared to many other electronic materials. It is also VERY valuable and is used in relatively tiny quantities - I highly doubt it is going to end up polluting water sources in the next 20 years.

But the real point to get across is graphene has far more environmentally positive benefits than detriments. The most harmful thing about true molecular graphene is the processes to make it, which can involve high-power lasers and harsh acids. However, graphene has little to no shelf life and it is AMAZINGLY efficient compared to the materials it replaces. That means it wastes less energy and takes up less materials (and therefore less volume and less mass) to accomplish the same thing as it's counterparts.

In case anyone is wondering, graphene is known to be an INSANE supercapacitor, it can absorb solar energy, and the most mindblowing of all, it can absorb thermal energy. If that doesn't help improve the environment, I don't know what will.
benji2412 1st May 2014, 17:41 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by schmidtbag
It can absorb solar energy

But doesn't do anything useful with it yet.
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