Last year, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two scientists/professors at the University of Manchester, were awarded the Nobel prize for physics for their work in achieving the creation of graphene. This “miracle material” is simply a one atom thick flake of graphite, but at this nanoscale, graphite takes on exciting properties. Graphene is the strongest material, 200 times stronger than steel, and it is incredibly conductive. It is also very thin. Three million sheets of graphene stacked is just one millimeter high. These properties make graphene highly suited for use in the manufacture of electronic devices, and various companies are currently working on researching and developing electronic devices that make use of this fantastic material.
One example of a potential use of graphene in electronic devices is with touchscreen technology. Currently touchscreens use increasingly scarce rare-earth minerals. However, graphene, a highly abundant material, may allow manufacturers to revolutionize the touchscreen. Plastic containing just 1% of graphene would be highly conductive but still remain transparent, which should provide a better alternative to manufacturers than the current touchscreen technology. The great news for consumers is that it should lead to thinner and cheaper mobile devices.
However, the unpredictability of how materials behave at the nanoscale, especially natural materials such as graphite and graphene which contain carbon molecules, means that the question of toxicity will arise. There is no research yet on whether graphene is harmful. It is hard to imagine how graphene would enter the human body once integrated into a matrix for use in electronic products. However, a legitimate potential area of concern could be during the manufacturing or product disposal processes. As with all new forms of nanotechnology, regulators are in the early stages of creating regulations to handle emerging nanotechnology products. They must tread carefully in weighing the risks versus the potential gains in technology. Graphene has the potential to revolutionize the electronics industry, and it would be a shame if unnecessarily stringent regulations stifled its benefical uses.
Insurers should keep a close watch on graphene as it is poised to make its way into many forms of electronics. While it is unlikely that a finished product with graphene in it will be dangerous during use, the possibility that the material could have toxic properties that harm workers during manufacturing and end-of-life disposal, means insurers should be mindful and informed of these risks. Until further information is known about exactly how graphene interacts with the human body, insurers should consider requiring that their insured manufacturers using graphene components adopt safety protocols and personal protective equipment similar to those currently in place for industries using other nano or ultra-fine particle materials guarding against inhalation of particulates.