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Graphene miracle material could prove toxic to humans

The miracle material we’ve all been talking about-Graphene-may have one major flaw-it may prove toxic to humans.

Graphene slicing into cellThe nanomaterial, developed by researchers at the University of Manchester, could hold the key to super lightweight and efficient batteries, and one day be used power everything from mobile phones to electric cars. It could also be used to develop sensors, solar cells,  lightweight screens and even medical devices.

The most conductive material yet developed, its a million times better at conducting electricity than copper. It is also incredibly light and strong, despite being just one atom layer thick; it is a hundred times stronger than steel.

But it’s these exact qualities that could make it dangerous; being so incredibly strong and yet so micro-thin. Researchers at Brown University in the US have found that the material could easily pierce biological cell membranes, it to enter a cell and disrupt normal function.

Jagged edges and sharp corners of graphene sheets can tear into cell membranes, allowing the whole sheet to enter the cell, where it can cause problems.

However, rather than being pessimistic about its research findings, the Brown University team hope that the study could prove useful in helping to find ways to minimize the potential nano-toxicity of graphene.

Agnes Kane, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Brown and one of the study’s authors, said: “At a fundamental level, we want understand the features of these materials that are responsible for how they interact with cells.  If there’s some feature that is responsible for its toxicity, then maybe the engineers can engineer it out.”

Inside the human body

While research and development of the material is still very much in the laboratory stages, scientists know that it is important to understand the full effects it might have once it has commercial applications.

Studying the potential for graphene to get into human lung, skin and immune cells, the scientists now what to understand the potential effects of the material getting inside such tissue.

“These materials can be inhaled unintentionally, or they may be intentionally injected or implanted as components of new biomedical technologies,” said Robert Hurt, professor of engineering and and fellow author of the study. “So we want to understand how they interact with cells once inside the body.”

The UK is one of the countries keen to get ahead in the development of the new wonder material, with the Government recently awarding £21.5 million funding for research to be share across the  universities of Manchester, Durham, Cambridge, Exeter and Royal Holloway as well as the Imperial College of London.

Meanwhile, over at the Rhode Island, Brown University just published its findings in the July 9 edition of  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

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Faye Sunderland

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