Graphene: The Microbes’ 5G Network

Michele Ponzelli (ESR12)

We live in a constantly connected world, where the exchange of information is getting faster and faster, and technology is rapidly evolving. We can barely remember when there was no internet connection or when we have no cell phones at all.

As in many other fields, in scientific research, there is a growing need to speed up the connection in order to solve increasingly complex problems.

Sewage water treatment is one of them. Particularly, my research focuses on removing pharmaceutical products that enter the water cycle through their use and disposal. The discharged pharmaceutical products that enter the water bodies might harm (cause adverse effect) the ecosystem and human health. In fact, these compounds contain active substances capable of inducing, positive or negative, functional modifications in living organisms.

Even if these compounds are generally present at low concentrations and they unlikely pose a risk to human health, their massive use and the involuntary exposure over long periods might have adverse effects.

Generally, in a wastewater treatment facility, one of the most advantageous way to remove contaminants happens through microorganisms’ metabolism. However, pharmaceuticals seem to do not look appealing to the microorganisms’ tastes, so these chemicals pass through the treatment facilities completely undisturbed, or partially removed (there is not enough time to remove them at 100%).

Then, in this specific case, how can the research press the accelerator and shift from 2G to 5G connection?

The solution may be in a material never seen before.

It is the thinnest material in the world (only one atom thick), it can transport electric current faster than the renowned copper, and it can withstand a weight 200 times higher than steel, but at the same time ensuring a high degree of flexibility. It is the wonder material. It is graphene.

You may have already heard about something similar, i.e. graphite, which is what the black point of your pencil made of. However, the main difference between them is the number of layers. Graphene is a one-layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal honeycomb structure; graphite is a million layers of graphene instead.

But how can graphene help microorganisms in eliminating these dangerous pharmaceuticals?

Graphene simply brings in communication the microorganisms present in water with one another.

In fact, one can think of microorganisms as people who want to share messages but have very slow connections to be able to communicate successfully.

On the contrary, the presence of graphene enables microorganisms to increase their connection speed and consequently increase the amount of information that they can exchange, i.e. the number of electrons.

The higher the quality of the connection, the higher the number of electrons that they exchange, thus, the faster the degradation rate of the pharmaceutical products.

Therefore, graphene allows the microorganisms to switch from a 2G connection to a 5G connection.

Anyway, communication is not only important for microorganisms but also for scientists, because it allows us to share our work with the society. Effective communication transforms science from that boring and sometimes too complex matter into an everyday language. It transforms the way we observe our planet, making us feel not simply guests of nature, but conscious inhabitants and informed citizens.


Did you get excited about graphene? Go here to know more (Free English PDF version at the end).