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Earth Medicine Science

Graphene Could Be Dangerous To Humans and the Environment 135

Posted by samzenpus
from the keep-out-of-eyes-and-mouth dept.
Zothecula (1870348) writes "It's easy to get carried away when you start talking about graphene. Its properties hold the promise of outright technological revolution in so many fields that it has been called a wonder material. Two recent studies, however, give us a less than rosy angle. In the first, a team of biologists, engineers and material scientists at Brown University examined graphene's potential toxicity in human cells. Another study by a team from University of California, Riverside's Bourns College of Engineering examined how graphene oxide nanoparticles might interact with the environment if they found their way into surface or ground water sources."
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Graphene Could Be Dangerous To Humans and the Environment

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  • Grey goo

    • Grey goo (Score:4, Insightful)

      by kruach aum (1934852) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:41AM (#46887503)

      Ever since I first heard about the idea of grey goo, I've always wondered why no-one realises that grey goo already exists: they're called bacteria and viruses. They reproduce unchecked, can have catastrophic consequences for all other forms of life, and are largely carbon-based nano-machines.

      • Re:Grey goo (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:57AM (#46887559)

        Ever since I first heard about the idea of grey goo, I've always wondered why no-one realises that grey goo already exists: they're called bacteria and viruses. They reproduce unchecked, can have catastrophic consequences for all other forms of life, and are largely carbon-based nano-machines.

        The idea of self-replicating small entities is the same, but that bacteria is micrometer scale not nanoscale aside, the difference is the scenario where gray goo consume everything. Virus replicate only within living cells, and most of them in a non-deadly (even if somewhat harmful) symbiosis with the host. Grey goo nano-machines consume raw materials, not only us, but all the stuff around us (including what we try to contain them with).

        • but all the stuff around us (including what we try to contain them with).

          If you can demonstrate how to derive energy from a glass container in an oxygen atmosphere, then there is a Nobel Prize waiting for you in Stockholm. If it was really so easy to "eat" glass, or even cellulose, then life would have evolved a way to do it eons ago.

          • by xevioso (598654)

            Clearly you have not seen star trek, where hordes of silicon-based life-forms inhabit our galaxy. Presumably they eat silicon, and glass contains a lot of that.

            • Silicon based life might be robots with an artificial intelligence computers, and they need to eat nothing, as they have solar panels to produce electricity directly from sunlight, and are able to live in the vacuum of outer space. If sunlight is not available, then they can use nuclear reactions to produce electricity to power themselves with in the dark.
          • They'd use internally-stored energy to consume the glass for use as a structural material, possibly using sunlight as a further energy source as they did so. As far as cellulose, life *did* evolve a way to eat it eons ago. How else would you explain the gut flora of termites?
            • Silicon is the next element down from Carbon, and back in the 1960s there was some research and speculation along the lines of whether a silicon-based biology could exist. It was interesting work. IIRC such a biology seemed at least reasonably plausible, but would have to live in a higher temperature - I think about 500 C? So it is at least plausible that the entire biology would be based on, essentially, silicones. Not exactly glass but maybe the 'bones' would be calcium silicate hydrate (ingredient of

          • I've destroyed orders of magnitude more glass containers than I have eaten them.

            The goal isn't to derive energy, but acquire resources or destroy barriers. Silicon and Oxygen are pretty useful as are sodium and calcium potentially. And whatever is useless, can be discarded. The mythical Nanobots wouldn't digest their way through glass, they'd just break the glass down as needed.

          • Glass is already dephlogisticated silicon, but silicon full of phlogiston has been suggested as a commodity energy carrier. On the plus side it's ubiquitous, being the second most common element on Earth after oxygen, but it's not easy to react it back and forth, unless we can find a way, such as an organic fluid with a high redox potential window able to digest solid silicon, and good luck with that, otherwise solid silicon reactions require very high temperatures. The hydride is more reactive, but then st
        • The idea of self-replicating small entities is the same, but that bacteria is micrometer scale not nanoscale aside, the difference is the scenario where gray goo consume everything. Virus replicate only within living cells, and most of them in a non-deadly (even if somewhat harmful) symbiosis with the host. Grey goo nano-machines consume raw materials, not only us, but all the stuff around us (including what we try to contain them with).

          The idea that they can construct nano-scaled machines that can consume everything is right up there with Ice-9 and being able to teach water to freeze at a temperature higher than room temperature. Sounds good, but the idea that man could improve on what nature has been trying to do in billions of years is pretty laughable. We can make nano-machines, but I bet that once they make them able to survive in a non-specialized evironment, self reproducing and add in the ability to feed off of a wider range of mat

          • by cusco (717999)

            I take it you've never used a megapixel camera, a microscope, a sailboat, or a microphone, and have never watched paragliders soar. We do a fuck of a lot of things better than nature has managed to do in a few billion years.

          • The danger of this may be the reason for the coming apocalypse and technological decline, as God may prefer going back to horses as power sources and monks doing handwriting, as opposed to creating all digesting nanomachines, the way we're headed these days. However the technological descent should be smoothed out a bit, as you should try to save some existing computers and run them for as many hundred years as they will go, before running out of them and being stuck with handwriting only.
        • I'm thinking that the ultimate long term solution to 'grey goo' is to include a mutation factor in the replication. Then, possibly after the grey goo kills everything else - oops, the grey goo will gradually differentiate into different species and we start evolution up again. And a few hundred million years from now, their descendants will be 'writing' papers about the 'great DNA extinction'.

      • by siddesu (698447)
        Probably because the original scifi concept is that gray goo is not lifelike -- it is very simple, and won't evolve, just dissolve everything into ever more gray goo. Or somesuch.The nanodes that can only be killed by the Martian defense systems, on the other hand...
      • That's called green goo.

    • Re:One word (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:54AM (#46887549)
      That's two words!
    • Re:One word (Score:5, Insightful)

      by delt0r (999393) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @07:10AM (#46887781)
      Yea so its going to turn all the other elements into carbon? Its going dissipate its heat how?

      The laws of physics, the way the universe works in other words, precludes a grey goo any worse than we already have. aka bacteria.
    • by plopez (54068)

      That's two words

  • by Viol8 (599362) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:32AM (#46887475)

    Graphene oxide is CO2 FFS.

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:46AM (#46887523) Journal
      Only if you really oxidize it, good and hard. Carbon's ability to bond fairly strongly with itself, and graphite's mixture of strong bonds within layers and weak bonds between them allow for a variety of vexingly complex oxidized forms that definitely have a lot more oxygen grafted on than the non-oxide form; but still retain much of their graphite layer structure.
      • by Viol8 (599362) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:51AM (#46887541)

        "Only if you really oxidize it, good and hard"

        Yes - its called fire!

        Joking aside , it does seem the nano engineers are somewhat taking liberties with the chemical naming system since graphene isn't an element - its an allotrope. You might as well say diamond oxide which would be equally non sensical.

        • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @06:03AM (#46887587) Journal
          I get the impression that, once you get into the realm of molecules that can easily be thousands to tens of thousands of atoms in size (and, just for extra fun, 'graphene oxide nanoparticle' isn't even a specific molecule, just a gigantic class of various differently shaped and sized hunks of graphene with assorted oxidizers grafted on here and there. There might actually be no two alike in a modestly sized sample...) 'systematic naming' becomes a bit of a joke. Assuming your pet molecule doesn't break some hitherto trusted rule it can probably be named; but you aren't going to want to read the result.

          It's still arguably sloppy, there just aren't terribly good options.
        • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

          by azav (469988)

          it's* called fire

                  it's = it is

          Learn this.

        • by Sockatume (732728) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @07:39AM (#46887847)

          Chemist here: the "chemical naming system" as you so quaintly put it makes enormous distinctions between materials with the same composition but different structures, so yes, we refer to graphene oxide, graphite oxide, oxidised diamond, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and every other possible combination of carbon and oxygen because they have entirely different properties.

        • by Goldsmith (561202)

          I'm a nanotechnologist who has worked on all these materials, and I've got to support your sentiment here.

          Graphene is a great material, it's got a lot of cool properties and it won the Nobel Prize. People discovered that you could make something like graphene, but it had a lot of oxygen incorporated into it. They called it "graphene oxide," with a shorthand of "graphene." Then, other people found that you get more interesting stuff if you replace the oxygen with hydrogen in graphene oxide, leading to "re

          • The obvious solution is to adopt the computer science - especially software - approach - pick any old words you want and repurpose them with new definitions. Use words that can be conceptually analogous a lot of the time - 'module' in software has at least a conceptual relationship with its use in other disciplines - but sprinkle in visualization or action references ('boot'), distant puns, and complete nonsequiturs. Then assume that anyone who doesn't know what you mean is a complete idiot! :)

            Every disci

      • Naming conventions in chemistry suck.

    • Carbon? Ban it!

    • by rossdee (243626)

      But CO2 is toxic to humans (volcanos have killed entire villages with CO2 clouds) and theres the greenhouse problem, which we are now feeling the effects of. We don't need more C02 in the atmosphere.

      • is it toxic? or did those humans die due to a lack of oxygen, IE, they asphyxiated, vs being poisoned?

        (there's also been plenty of times in the planet's past where the CO2 levels were vastly higher than now... just saying.)

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:36AM (#46887489) Journal
    We like exotic nanostructures because they have cool properties that their bulk counterparts don't. Unfortunately, this ends up meaning that a knowledge of the toxicology of the bulk material is of only limited use for inferring what the cool nanostructure will do. Carbon shows signs of potentially being rather nastier in its fancy forms than it is in more familiar flavors; but other nanomaterials might go the other way.
    • > Carbon shows signs of potentially being rather nastier in its fancy forms

      That's like saying "Some types of technology can harm your health".

      Carbon is a very versatile element, it can take many forms. Some will be good, some will be bad, some will have no impact.

      e.g. There are signs of it being extremely beneficial in buckyball form: http://www.gizmag.com/diet-buc... [gizmag.com]

    • by ultranova (717540) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @08:19AM (#46887961)

      Carbon shows signs of potentially being rather nastier in its fancy forms than it is in more familiar flavors; but other nanomaterials might go the other way.

      Unlikely. The problem with "nano" anything is that small particles are hard to filter out, for example by your nose and throat, and thus tend to get where they aren't wanted, for example into your lungs. Whenever you hear "nanoparticle" think "really fine dust"; if the bulk material is toxic, why wouldn't the dust be? Remember that poison needs to get into your body to poison you, so a solid lump is harmless unless you eat it, but dust tends to float in the air and get sucked in when you inhale.

      But luckily, most of the promises of graphene - specifically, carbon nanotubes - depend on producing longer fibers, which should have the side effect of solving this problem.

      • by KozmoStevnNaut (630146) <henrikstevn@OOOg ... inus threevowels> on Thursday May 01, 2014 @09:10AM (#46888261)

        That depends on a lot of factors. Do you know why asbestos causes cancer? The fibers are fine enough that they will physically damage your DNA. I see very little reason why carbon nanotubes shouldn't be capable of the same thing.

        • by stenvar (2789879)

          The problem isn't that asbestos fibers are damaging to DNA (lots of things are), it's that they are chemically inert and can't be eliminated by the cells. Carbon nanotubes are degraded by cells, and fairly quickly.

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Tell that to the pencil lead I have stuck in my hand from 20 years ago...

            • by morethanapapercert (749527) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @03:13PM (#46892387)
              Having two such marks myself, I have to say that what you have is not a pencil lead stuck in your skin, not any more anyway. By now what you have is a graphite tattoo. Graphite is the most stable allotrope of carbon in most conditions, making it far more likely to remain within the dermis for years and years. As others have pointed out, graphene is the common name for many different forms of carbon atoms arranged in regular sheets. Many of these forms are far less stable/more reactive than common graphite, which is what makes them interesting to us. A form of graphene that sees use as a nano level sponge or reactive substrate is probably not going to be particularly stable within the human body, which is where the concern about toxicity comes in. Any really stable form of graphene, like the ones where its physical strength is the primary purpose, is also likely to be less reactive and hence, less of a danger.

              tl;dr version: Any material, nano or otherwise, which would make a good tattoo ink (lightfast, relatively immobile in the dermis, non-oxidizing etc) is not likely to be very toxic, except perhaps in relatively large amounts.

          • That occured to me after I posted, but even then, nano-scale materials are still very capable of doing irreversible damage. All-out panic is of course wrong, but we need to be aware of the possible dangers.

            • by stenvar (2789879)

              True, but these substances are nothing new just because we now call them "nano-scale materials". We're basically talking about soot, have understood its dangers for a long time now, and even have monitoring and exposure limits in place. The same can be said for many other "nano-scale materials".

      • Whenever you hear "nanoparticle" think "really fine dust"; if the bulk material is toxic, why wouldn't the dust be?

        And even if the bulk material isn't toxic, the dust could still be (due to the particles' physical shape, not its chemical properties). See, for example, silicosis [wikipedia.org].

    • by mspohr (589790)

      It's hard to predict the potential problems that will be caused by these materials.
      One thing that struck me in the articles was that graphene has sharp edges which can easily pierce cell membranes. This is not good for living things made up of cells. One other material which we have had experience with with similar properties is asbestos which has small (not nano) sharp particles easily inhaled into the lungs leading to lung cancer... not a good thing.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 01, 2014 @05:48AM (#46887527)

    Is it more toxic than the widely-used dihydrogen monoxide?

    • by Torp (199297)

      Wish i had mod points right now...

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Wish i had mod points right now...

        Why? Answering real and interesting science with a stupid chemist joke some people are proud to understand is helpful how?

        • but the joke is totally new. it's innovative, like 'where's the beef?'

    • Yes, and the amount being manufactured is increasing. And this at time when we're drowning in dihydrogen monoxide.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Consumption of dihydrogen monoxide has a fatality rate of 100% in a time frame no longer than 2^16 days.

    • Exactly... if the stupid regulators shut down the production of this stuff then I'm done with them.

    • It's as toxic as the used-to-be-widely-used asbestos.

      We normally think of toxicity as being based on chemical reactions. In graphene and asbestos, it's the nano-scale mechanical damage that causes problems.

  • Wonder material (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 01, 2014 @06:01AM (#46887573)

    A wonder material that turns out to be extremely dangerous?

    You don't say? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asbestos

    • by indytx (825419)

      A wonder material that turns out to be extremely dangerous?

      You don't say? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]

      I was thinking the same thing. Mesothelioma is a horrible way to go.

      • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

        by GoCrazy (1608235)
        Then again, 90%-95% of asbestos (crystotile) used wasn't carcinogenic, and the remaining 5% of asbestos used was only carcinogenic to smokers.

        http://scienceworld.wolfram.co... [wolfram.com]
        • by elwinc (663074)

          Then again, 90%-95% of asbestos (crystotile) used wasn't carcinogenic, and the remaining 5% of asbestos used was only carcinogenic to smokers. http://scienceworld.wolfram.co... [wolfram.com]

          Thanks for the excellent link. It does NOT support your summary. For example: "amphiboles are more potent than chrysotile in the induction of fibrotic lung disease and associated lung cancer" does NOT mean chrysotile is non carcinogenic. Similarly, "Asbestos-induced cancer is found only rarely in nonsmokers" does not support your claim that amphibole asbestos " was only carcinogenic to smokers."

          • by GoCrazy (1608235)
            Thanks for the clarification. I was looking for the link between asbestos and mesothelioma, but ignored the relation to lung cancer.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 01, 2014 @06:15AM (#46887617)

    The biological properties of lead were very well known.
    Didn't keep people from adding it to fuel and blowing it out of the tail pipes of virtually every car for a couple of decades.
    This time it's nano materials.
    The only thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history.

    • by Sockatume (732728) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @07:45AM (#46887875)

      Begging your pardon, but isn't the fact that graphene is being studied for low-level toxicity and environmental impacts before it's in actual use evidence that we have, in fact, learned from history?

      • AFAIK diesel engine exhaust has enough "nano particles" of carbon to be dangerous, so we already do know the stuff is not good to breath.
        • That's why all recent cars with diesel engines have Diesel Particulate Filters. Which cost a bloody fortune to replace!
          • ...And those filters screw up using biodiesel, which is ironic since burning biodiesel (at least in my experience using a 1.9L VW engine) produces less soot in the first place.

      • by Jmc23 (2353706)
        No, it means we're still trying to get something useful out of it.

        There are lots of other nanoparticles in use that are detrimental to human health. You just don't hear about them because space elevators and caps.

    • by Type44Q (1233630)

      The only thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history.

      However, if we were to learn anything from history, it'd be that those in charge have no qualms about poisoning, maiming or starving everyone else if it furthers their agendas (and in some cases even if it doesn't)...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If graphene threads are as thin and strong as stated, would they not present an extreme cutting hazard?
    As in slice your arm off before you notice?

    • by AlecC (512609)

      It is imaginable that a fibre such as you describe could be one of the products which could be made with graphene. But the nanoparticles being described in the articles are dangerous at the cellular level, not at the size of an arm. They are much more like incredibly fine, incredibly hard grit.

    • by cellocgw (617879)

      If graphene threads are as thin and strong as stated, would they not present an extreme cutting hazard?
      As in slice your arm off before you notice?

      Been reading RingWorld recently, eh?

    • by Jmc23 (2353706)
      it's more cut your lungs to ribbons while you notice.
  • by mark_reh (2015546) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @06:40AM (#46887697) Journal

    the carbon on the planet into nanotube meshes or sheets, eventually pulling all the carbon out of the air. Like Ice 9!

  • Remember how graphene was first made? There's even a YouTube video on it now! Ban this dangerous sticky tape and pencils before terrorists get their hooks - I mean hands - on them!

  • "Could* *be"? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by L4t3r4lu5 (1216702) on Thursday May 01, 2014 @07:08AM (#46887769)
    Come back when you can say "is" or "isn't". Until then, this doesn't even qualify as tabloid-worthy. It's not even a supposition, as that would require you to state an opinion either way, regardless of how ill informed.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Come back when you can say "is" or "isn't".

      That's called a religion. Meanwhile, in the real world, we don't have that luxury. Come back to me when your reasoning skills beat that of a plant.

  • by AlecC (512609) <aleccawley@gmail.com> on Thursday May 01, 2014 @07:17AM (#46887801)

    It is hardly surprising that graphene can, in some circumstances, be dangerous. Exhaust particulates, which he have known for years are dangerous, contain (now we know what we are looking for) large numbers of graphene nanoparticles, which may well contribute to their damaging effects. Just about every chemical ever tested has bad effects at some scale. What I didn't get from either article was any sense of the scale of the danger. Obviously, it is early days in the research, and one would only expect an order of magnitude estimate. But is is such a danger that we should not allow graphene products into the home lest they spill, or merely one which demands normal safety precautions in the factories for future graphene products? A warning of danger without some idea of the scale of the problem is just sensationalist: it induces fear without giving any idea as to what should be done, if anything,

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      "All substances are poisonous; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy" Von der Besucht, Paracelsus, 1567

    • by kheldan (1460303)
      Indeed.
      Too much oxygen in the air can be extremely toxic.
      Too much water in your body can kill you.
      Remember Socrates? What did they use to kill him, again? Hemlock? Isn't that a 100% naturally occurring substance? Deadly! Better ban it! Oh, wait..
    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      It is hardly surprising that graphene can, in some circumstances, be dangerous.

      Pretty much everything below a certain size is dangerous if inhaled.
      Your nose can't filter it out, it lodges in your lungs, and then everything goes to hell.

      Best case scenario, you get cancer and maybe live after they take out parts of your lungs.
      Worst case scenario, your lungs form scar tissue to encapsulate the particles and you either get a transplant or die.

      There's no such thing as a "benign" nano sized particle in your lungs.

    • by cusco (717999)

      I don't think they'll know with any certainty until the product has been in widespread use for many years. Individual sensitivity varies dramatically between people, some folks need to be hospitalized after a whiff of parathion, while my dad had a neighbor who inhaled so much of it while spraying his cherry orchards that more than once he was found staggering intoxicated down the middle of the road but who lived into his late 80s.

  • I thought fragments of graphene were found in graphite, so shall we start to ban all pencils while we're at it?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Graphene too dangerous in the environment? Well better ban all wood fires and BBQ grills because graphene forms pretty commonly on the inside of metal stoves/grills.

    Chicken little is at it again.

  • Dont forget that current CPUs use an array of toxic metals as dopants in their manufacture. Such as arsenic. Not to mention the many process chemicals.

  • Petro chmicals? Refinereries? If so then there are many more side effects to look at.

    • Petro chmicals? Refinereries? If so then there are many more side effects to look at.

      More like any organic matter and fire. You burn wood and you will get it. All graphene is, is graphite like in a pencil. it is one individual layer of pure graphite. it ocurs naturally all over.

  • ...everything kills you.

  • I dont have a chemistry background, can someone translate some of this for me, or at least link me to something that tries? The excerpt talked about ground water movement, but not really about WHY that is a bad thing.
  • Making an outright claim that the scientists are SPECIFICALLY LOOKING FOR TOXICITY, when really they're making preliminary datasets by which future studies MAY OR MAY NOT yield actual findings: maximising click-throughs since 1985.
  • The real question is how many nanoparticles of anything are safe?

    I don't really keep up with materials science, but have never encountered one single nanoparticle that isn't detrimental to humans, animals, or the environment. If we did discover a safe one it would probably be because it's already found in nature.

  • ``... if they found their way into surface or ground water sources.''

    If? IF? More like "when". How on earth could one prevent any substance from getting into the water supply?

    I'm all for using technology that might increase the power efficiency or the speed of computing but not at the expense of our water supply. Better look into any possible side effects on the environment before rolling something like this out to the general consumer.

  • ComesAsNoSurprise
  • Wonder material until we realized its actually causing all sorts of troubles :(

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