Our planet’s health depends on humans’ environmental impact. The sustainable development of our planet must “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations” (United Nations, 1987). In addition to how we apply technology, the choice of materials used in this age is an important factor for assessing our environmental impact.
Graphene is a two-dimensional atomic crystal that is one of several allotropes of carbon, along with fullerenes (buckyballs) and nanotubes. Graphene is a 'wonder material'; a boon in this age of technology and speed. It has been vigorously researched and implemented in numerous technologies around the world.
Graphene is made up of carbon, arranged in a single layer of atoms in a honeycomb structure. This two-dimensional form provides carbon with remarkable properties: electronic, optical, and mechanical. Graphene is stronger than steel, yet flexible. It is an excellent conductor of electricity - even better than copper. Optically it is transparent to UV, visible and infra-red light. According to Andrea Ferrari, a nanotechnologist at the United Kingdom’s University of Cambridge, graphene also “works at absolutely any wavelength whatsoever”.
The applications of graphene are burgeoning in all fields – restricted only by one’s ability to think and apply – from electric batteries, to smart phones, solar panels, clothes, and even tennis rackets! It can be a detector, as well as a source of terahertz radiation (used in security scans, environmental sensing, and medical imaging). Graphene is also used in ultrafast lasers, in optical telecommunications, and electronics.
All of the exciting properties and application possibilities have made graphene the material of our time and civilization. But how sustainable is it? Does the ‘express rate’ at which we incorporate graphene into our products and our lives compare to the rate at which it can be sustained, reused, recycle, or decomposed?
The long-term success of any technologies developed also depends on their sustainability properties, in addition to their functional properties.
Nature, Materials for Sustainability, 2002
A direct assessment would suggest that graphene may not be sustainable from three possible perspectives:
- The potential harm caused to the environment
- Its potential effect on natural resources during the processes of manufacture and transportation
- The potential health issues it causes during production and use
Randolph Kirchain, Jeremy Gregory and Elsa Olivetti describe life-cycle assessment as “one of the tools used to quantify the environmental burden of a material or a technology.” At the global and local levels, the environmental impact of graphene’s life cycle must be considered. However, there is significant ambivalence regarding the overall sustainability of graphene, and it does have a number of positive uses.
These include its use in solar energy and energy storage technology, which could potentially reduce the cost of electricity bills while reducing the global dependence on fossil fuels; the use of graphene oxide materials for the removal of pharmaceuticals from aqueous solutions; the use of graphene-enabled technology for treating water; and the use of graphene composites for the enhancement of sustainability by protecting steel from corrosion. Graphene is utilized in a variety of products, whose recycle and down-cycle potential falls within the grey area. In spite of its innumerable uses, the production of graphene on a large scale is difficult to conduct in an eco-friendly manner. Notwithstanding the questions raised above, the sustainability of any material or technology also involves resource management, “biodiversity preservation, poverty eradication and fair individual and societal development”. These are all values which graphene production hopes to abide by in the future.
Graphene has significant potential to become a sustainably produced material. If a conscious effort is made by scientists, researchers, industrialists, economists, marketers, consumers, and environmentalists, its environmental impact can be balanced, reduced, and sustained.