Health fears hamper graphene development

While labs across the world continue to unearth more and more revelatory properties of graphene, the potential dangers of working with the material are often overlooked.

A study by scientists at the University of Edinburgh has shown that the near-universally acclaimed wonder material could pose serious health risks.

Following its discovery by two researchers at Manchester University – now both in possession of Nobel prizes and knighthoods – atom-thick graphene has exhibited many astounding qualities.  With the potential to revolutionise the chip industry and elsewhere, the UK government has ploughed £50 million into moving lab developments to the commercial sphere.

There is understandable enthusiasm, but Edinburgh researchers have raised concerns about manufacturing the material.

New evidence has shown that disc-shaped graphene particles, known as nanoplatelets, could pose risks to the lungs of workers involved in producing the material in factory conditions.

The nanoplatelets, less than an atom-thick and invisible to the naked eye, are also aerodynamic, meaning that they could quite easily be breathed in by workers, causing organ damage.

Concerns over health risks could potentially put the brakes on lab work moving to shop-bought applications.

Graphene chips are not likely to see the light of day until at least the tail end of the decade.  However, developments continue apace, and applications in touch screens, for example, are expected a lot sooner.

Professor Ken Donaldson, Chair of Respiratory Toxicology at the University of Edinburgh, told TechEye that with graphene heading towards large scale production the potential risks need to be taken into consideration.

“We appear to be on the cusp of graphene use, if that is true we need to be careful that people are not being exposed to large amounts,” he said, speaking with TechEye. “It stands to be produced in huge amounts – our work is to say that its shape is not like the average particle.”

According to Donaldson, the unusual flat shape is what could cause the health risks: “What we think is that graphene in the form of nanoplatelets come as quite an unusual shape – most particles are roughly spherical, these are quite different,” Donaldson said. “They are quite thin but they can be quite big, although they don’t weigh much.”

Donaldson said that there are cells which ingest particles which land in the lung, however, “the only ones that usually get to the deep part of the lung are quite small”.

“But,” he continued, “this is a particle which is big and flat and can get into the deep part of the lung, so when these lung cells try and deal with it is too big for them.”

The fact that lung cells measuring 10 microns are trying to deal with 30 micron graphene platelets is what causes problems, with most debris entering the lungs closer to around 3 microns.

“It is like trying to take a bite of a massive pizza, the cells are not able to ingest the flat platelets,” Donaldson said. “In the natural world you don’t get a lot of particles which are flat like that. Because of this it can be a risk.”

Donaldson insists there is no reason for hysteria. “We are not trying to draw a moratorium on graphene, but we need to be aware of this,” he said. “The whole point of the exercise is to warn people to prevent health risks, to monitor what is in the air and prevent people from being exposed to this. If people are people are exposed to this over a long period of time it could lead to some sort of chronic lung disease.”

In order to deal with this he believes more substantial work is needed looking into the potential risks. “There is hardly anything being done with graphene – you really need to an inhalation study in animals to really test the hypothesis if it’s going to done in large amounts,” he said. “Someone needs to invest in doing this kind of thing. It costs a lot of money to do an inhalation study like that but there is definitely a need for that type of research.”

So far, there have not been any reported ill-effects from graphene production, but with work still in its infancy, it will take time before any dangers could become apparent.

“There haven’t been any cases so far – it usually takes years of highish exposure to show effects, so probably hasn’t been enough time to develop yet,” he said. “But we are still on the cusp of large production so we need to be vigilant.”