The famous nanomaterial graphene is made up of sheets of carbon only one atom thick. In addition to being the strongest material ever tested, it abounds with superlative electronic properties. After a decade of research, it will soon be ready to move from the laboratory to commercial applications, including as a component of ultralight aircraft or in high-capacity batteries.
So the time may be ripe to get ahead of potential risks before workers are exposed to graphene or before it finds its way into drinking water, says Sharon Walker, an environmental engineer at the University of California, Riverside. In research recently published in Environmental Engineering Science, her group studied the behavior of graphene oxide in water.
The researchers found that, in a solution that mimicked groundwater, the material clumped together and sank, so it did not appear to pose a risk. However, the same was not true in a solution that mimicked surface water, such as that in lakes and drinking water reservoirs.
Graphene Oxide Toxicity
In such circumstances it did not settle to the bottom, but floated and adhered to organic matter generated by the decomposition of plants and animals. Such mobility could increase the chances of animals and humans ingesting graphene oxide, the toxicity of which has been demonstrated in previous studies with mice and human lung cells.
If such materials were hazardous to human health, their mobility in surface waters would be a serious problem. Walker hopes that these studies will come in time for consideration in the industrial development of graphene and its derivatives, as well as for regulation by public agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.