Research warns of graphene's environmental impact

April 30, 2014 // 9:53 a.m.

Tags: #carbon #environment #graphene #graphene-oxide #graphite #jacob-lanphere #researcher #researchers #riverside #university #university-of-california

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.