The irruption of graphene in the universe of nanomaterials is generating a real revolution due to its amazing properties and promises of applications that eclipse science fiction. But what do we know about its human and environmental safety?
What is Graphene and Why is it so Important?
Graphene is a new carbon material with unprecedented innovation potential due to its extraordinary properties: 200 times harder than steel, more conductive than copper and lighter than any other known material. It is the first two-dimensional crystal consisting of a sheet, one atom thick, of carbon atoms linked in a hexagonal lattice.
This video from the American Chemistry Society (ACS) explains it very well…
Applications range from medicine, environmental remediation, energy generation and storage, information and communication technologies, sensors in all fields, the development of new ultra-strong yet ultra-light materials, etc. Paper-thin, rollable screens, buildings that are self-powered by invisible coatings that transform sunlight into electrical energy, kitchen utensils with sensors that warn of spoiled food, drugs that detect and act on cancer cells, or membranes that separate salt from seawater, guaranteeing fresh water to the entire population and to previously desertified lands. Everything is just around the corner.
The expectations generated by this supermaterial are so far-reaching that the European Union has considered research in this field, along with that of the brain, as one of the flagships of research, creating the Graphene Flagship . In September 2014, the European Commission defined this type of initiative as “visionary large-scale scientific research projects addressing major scientific and technological challenges. Leia aqui.
They are long-term initiatives to concentrate excellent research teams from various disciplines, sharing a unifying common goal and an ambitious research plan to achieve it. Flagships are oriented towards transformational impacts in science and technology that offer a key competitive advantage for European industry and important benefits for society. The budget is one billion euros over the next ten years. The core of the European consortium brings together 150 university and industry research centers from 23 countries. Leia aqui.
To understand the scope of this enormous project, it suffices to mention the different areas and projects involved. Until recently the Graphene Flagship integrated 11 work packages: WP 1: Materials, WP 2: Health and Environment, WP 3: Basic Graphene Science and 2D materials beyond Graphene, WP4: High Frequency Electronics, WP5: Optoelectronics, WP6: Spintronics, WP7: Sensors, WP8: Flexible Electronics, WP9: Energy, WP10: Nanocomposites and WP11: Production. To date, the evolution of the project, guided by the research results, has resulted in 20 work packages grouped in 5 divisions, including those of administration and project management.
All in the Race
The graphene market is forecast to grow from $20 million in 2014 to more than $390 million in 2024. The patent development race got off to a flying start shortly after 2010, when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on graphene. Since then, scientific production has been unstoppable and Asian countries are leading the way in the field of graphene patents, just look at what Her Gracious Majesty’s Patent Office of the United Kingdom had to say in 2013. (See attachment at the end)
In this representation, topographical territories are proportional to the level of patent generation. Note the small western compared to eastern expanses. The new 2015 report on the global graphene patent landscape continue to give Asia this dominance, led by Samsung with patent families targeting flexible electronics and energy storage.
What about human and environmental safety?
The potential and interest of graphene is clear. We now turn to the occupational health and safety aspects of graphene. As we have seen the Graphene Flagship has a work package dedicated to human and environmental safety “as an indispensable part of realizing the full potential for well-being, growth and competitiveness that the Graphene Flagship brings us”.
The text of WP2 reads: The small size and unique physicochemical properties of graphene present potential risks to human health and the environment. Identifying and resolving potential safety and toxicity issues is crucial not only for its integration into ICT, composite materials, etc., but also in view of its potential biomedical applications, such as direct nano-interface devices with cells and tissues. This work package (WP) is an essential requirement that cannot be dissociated from the development of new nanotechnologies. The group is commissioned to investigate the human and environmental safety of graphene and is led by Prof. Maurizio Prato, University of Trieste, Italy and Prof. Alberto Bianco, CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), France.
Well, but what do we know today about the possible toxicity of graphene? A review of the available empirical evidence on the toxicity of graphene has recently been published. The figure below shows a diagram of possible mechanisms of cytotoxicity. Graphene sheets can enter cells by different routes. Once inside, graphene can induce the generation of substances that produce oxidative stress, increase LDH and MDH levels or modify calcium homeostasis. These alterations can cause different types of damage, such as physical destruction of the cell, plasma membrane damage, inflammation, DNA alteration, mitochondrial damage, apoptosis or necrosis.
Despite this evidence, we are still far from being able to formulate a generic statement on the possible toxicity of certain types of graphene. Even less so for graphene in general. Until then, the application of the precautionary principle will allow us to guarantee the occupational health and safety of all those potentially exposed to graphene. In these initial stages of graphene development, the main group of workers is that of research laboratories and graphene production companies.
We must also be alert to research results that may provide us with clues or information on how to act as those responsible for the occupational health and safety of people potentially exposed to nanomaterials, such as this one that tells us that age may be a differential response factor to exposure to nanomaterials.
I invite you to explore “The graphene house”, the website of the University of Manchester dedicated to graphene, one of the best informative websites, which is not surprising since it is there that Geim and Novoselov discovered graphene. Leia aqui.
The Worldwide Patent Landscape in 2013