By Monica Lobo, Science in Society Manager at the British Science Association.
It is stronger than steel, light and thin, transparent and elastic, and can even conduct electricity. These are just some of the amazing properties of graphene, the new wonder material.
Graphene’s future applications are almost endless: unbreakable and paper-thin touchscreens that could make mobile phones flexible enough to be worn as a bracelet, a better desalinisation process for getting fresh water, faster computers and broadband, solar panels or circuits which you can paint or spray on to virtually any surface, and much more. And there are already those who are trying to find the best way to use graphene in 3D printers.
Graphene could potentially revolutionise the telecommunications, electronics, energy and the automotive and aerospace sectors.
Keeping track of all of the latest innovations in the use of graphene isn’t easy – it’s currently an incredibly fast-paced area of research.
The hashtag, #graphene , on Twitter gives some insight into the latest hype in graphene research and future applications. Researchers, publications and many others post here about graphene breakthroughs such as its potential as a drug delivery system, the factors that affect graphene costs or simply their amazement: New 'miracle material' is flexible while also as hard as a diamond.
Graphene was isolated for the first time in the UK by Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, from the University of Manchester, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their work.
This, and the need to boost the UK’s economic growth, are probably part of the reason behind the 2012 announcement of a £21.5m investment in graphene research and innovation.
Which seems a fair amount until you compare it to the €1 billion from the European consortium of both public and private sector partners, known as the Future Emerging Technology Flagship , that is being spent on graphene research over the next ten years.
Impressive for a material that is just one atom thick (a billionth of a metre). The graphene revolution could potentially have a huge effect on all our lives, and private companies, research groups and governments are racing to harness its potential. Apple, for instance, have already submitted a graphene patent with slimmer flexible batteries in mind.
But what will developments like these mean for our everyday lives? And will these changes be positive or negative?
Recently, Sciencewise summarised the public views on nanotechnologies and nanomaterials , such as graphene, bringing together reports, projects, focus groups and dialogue activities of the past ten years.
One of the first things they found was that much of the population, 52% to be more precise, are unaware of what nanomaterials and nanotechnology actually are. Not a surprise really, as this is a fairly new area of research, but for those that have heard of these terms it would seem that much of what they think about the research is positive. However, there were a few key concerns that were raised:
- Risk, safety and regulation
Considering the level of uncertainty about the toxicology, and the health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials, there appears to be a demand for regulation, set by a body, which can manage the potential risks and knowledge gaps, set responsibilities and actions, and that is independent of other stakeholders such as the private sector or the Government.
- Applications, equity and empowerment
What are the trade-offs between the potential benefits and the risks of these new applications? Who will benefit – just a few privileged individuals or society as a whole? The applications that were perceived to contribute to the wider social good, such as in healthcare or environment technologies, were supported much more than those that had a less clear societal benefit, for example in the cosmetics industry.
- Public engagement and transparency
What products in the market contain nanomaterials and what does that mean? Why were they used? What are the developments in this area? Are our views being considered in public risk-related decisions? At the moment there is no requirement to inform consumers where nanomaterials are used so we might be using them without being aware. In a recent report , the European Environmental Agency considered that deliberate engagement of the public in risk-related decisions on nanotechnology has been very limited.
Although there is still not very much information available on the publics’ views on graphene, it is fair to assume that the applications that will benefit society as a whole will gather support. Equally, the use and applications of graphene will undoubtedly raise similar concerns to the ones seen with other nanomaterials, regarding regulation, safety and public engagement.
So what is being done regarding graphene’s safety and regulation? Is the public being involved early in the innovation process, something known as responsible innovation ?
I personally do not know the answers but if you do or if you have a view on this subject, please share it with us either by leaving a comment below or by commenting on the Sciencewise report .