Graphene’s Newest Feat: Cleaning Up Radioactive Water

It’s probably been a while since you’ve thought about the Fukushima nuclear disaster that rocked Japan, and international headlines, in 2011. Despite the fact that the media have moved on, the arduous process of cleaning up and decontaminating the area is a daily reality for the Japanese.

One of Fukushima’s worst catastrophes was the direct result of the nuclear plant being built so close to the coastline. The idea of contamination inside a nuclear facility is terrifying enough, without the thought that it’s running directly into the ocean we all share. New research out of Houston’s Rice University and Lomonosov Moscow State University may have discovered a way graphene, that miraculous substance, can reverse even this environmental disaster.

graphene. radioactive, radiation, contaminated water, Fukushima, nuclear

Image via kewl/Flickr

In case you’re not familiar, graphene is a substance made of pure carbon, with atoms arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern similar to graphite, but in a one-atom thick sheet. It is very light, with a 1 square meter sheet weighing only 0.77 milligrams. It’s been suggested that this material could be the key to efficient desalinization, flexible semi-conductors, and better electronics. And now, nuclear waste clean-up.

According to researchers at the aforementioned Universities, when flakes of graphene oxide are added to contaminated water, it causes the radionuclides to condense into clumps. Those clumps can then be separated and disposed of. The researchers focused on removing radioactive isotopes of the actinides and lanthanides – the 30 rare earth elements in the periodic table – from liquids, rather than solids or gases. “Graphene oxide introduced to simulated wastes coagulated within minutes, quickly clumping the worst toxins,” said chemist Stepan Kalmykov. The process worked across a range of pH values.

In addition to possibly assisting in decontamination efforts at Fukushima, the researchers say this graphene-based process could also help the natural gas industry clean up its act. “When groundwater comes out of a well and it’s radioactive above a certain level, they can’t put it back into the ground,” said chemist James Tour. “It’s too hot. Companies have to ship contaminated water to repository sites around the country at very large expense.” The ability to quickly filter out contaminants on-site would save a great deal of money.”

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog