In the world of material science graphene might be considered its Superman, Einstein and Edison combined. In the lab, it has proven itself to be nothing short of magical and amazingly useful time and time again.
The single-atom slice of pure carbon is crazy strong, yet lightweight and very flexible. While it is not yet used in commercial applications, it is under very active development for potential use in photovoltaics, energy storage, electronics and filtration, among many others. We're not talking about it just being part of such applications—it will radically change everything. If it lives up to promise, we'll be able to charge our phones in about five seconds, clean up huge amounts of radioactive waste, make salt water drinkable, create unbreakable touch screens, insert bionic devices in human tissue—the list goes on.
But it looks like the first doubt has been cast upon the darling of materials science. Two studies published this month have found some negative side effects. A group at Brown University have found that the material may be toxic to humans. The edges of graphene are sharp and very strong and can penetrate the membranes of lung, skin and immune cells. This could mean pretty serious damage, since the nanoparticles could either be inhaled or intentionally injected into human tissue as part of medical therapies.
The second study comes from the University of California and concerns the environment. Seems that graphene oxide can remain stable in lakes and rivers. This means that any spillage could travel far and stick around long enough to actually cause harm to plants, fish and animals.
Co-author Jacob D. Lanphere told gizmag:
The situation today is similar to where we were with chemicals and pharmaceuticals 30 years ago. We just don't know much about what happens when these engineered nanomaterials get into the ground or water. So we have to be proactive so we have the data available to promote sustainable applications of this technology in the future.
Currently the Advanced Chemicals Supplier (pdf) lists graphene as nothing more than a possible skin or eye irritant. Right now there are no carcinogenic effects listed and no developmental toxicity. However, it is listed as toxic to the upper respiratory tract and possibly toxic to the cardiovascular system and other organs.
To be sure, it's very early days yet for this man-made material—discovered just a decade ago—and the hope is that we can work through proper safety long before it reaches commercial territory.