Rice University chemist James Tour and Stepan Kalmykov of Lomonosov Moscow State University have found that microscopic, atom-thick flakes of graphene oxide can bind quickly to natural and human-made radionuclides and condense them into solids for easy removal from contaminated water.
The discovery could be an aid in the cleanup of contaminated sites like the Fukushima nuclear plants damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Tour said in a Rice release Tuesday.
Graphene oxide's capacity to adsorb radioactive material is down to its large surface area, Kalmykov said.
"So the high retention properties are not surprising to us," he said. "What is astonishing is the very fast kinetics of sorption, which is key."
Because of that speed graphene oxide has proved far better than the clays and granulated activated carbon commonly used in nuclear cleanup, the researchers said.
"Though [radioactive wastes] don't really like water all that much, they can and do hide out there," said Steven Winston, an expert in nuclear power and remediation who is working with the researchers. "From a human health and environment point of view, that's where they're least welcome."