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Graphene’s latest neat trick? Stopping mosquitoes from biting you

There’s no getting around it: Graphene is all kinds of awesome. A single layer of graphite with its atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like hexagonal pattern, graphene is capable of a plethora of astonishing feats — from creating body armor that’s stronger than diamonds to acting as a superconductor to filtering the color out of whiskey.

Now, researchers have discovered graphene’s latest superpower — and it’s a doozy. In research funded by the National Institutes of Health, investigators have discovered that graphene could be used as an alternative to insect repellant to ward off mosquitoes. As it turns out, dry graphene film seems to interfere with mosquitoes’ ability to sense skin and sweat, thereby stopping them from being attracted to humans as mobile drinking fountains. Graphene film also forms a barrier that mosquitos are unable to bite through.

“Graphene films are ultrathin and ultralight and are being explored already for various functions in wearable technologies,” Robert Hurt, director of the Superfund Research Program at Brown University and one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “Our goal was to see if these graphene films could also provide mosquito bite protection, knowing there is a general interest in alternative approaches to the way fabrics are treated now with chemical repellents. We find that graphene oxide and reduced graphene oxide films both stop mosquito biting, but the primary mechanism is not puncture resistance but a chemical concealment property in which mosquitoes are prevented from accessing the chemical cues they use to find a host and initiate biting.”

While the chemical-free nature of the work is certainly exciting, the researchers haven’t yet directly compared graphene’s efficacy with some of the more mainstream anti-mosquito repellents, such as DEET. Hurt said that doing so would be “an important next step.”

As to how this research could one day be commercialized, he has a few ideas. “Ours is a basic science paper, but one can envision applications in enhanced fabrics for clothing, uniforms, gloves used in areas of high risk for mosquito-borne infectious disease,” he said. “More work will be needed, of course, to develop and evaluate such technologies — and we hope this work gets done in our laboratory or others.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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