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Graphene filter can clean nuclear wastewater

"This is really the first membrane shown to distinguish between subatomic particles," said researcher Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo.

By
Brooks Hays
Membranes made of graphene, an atom-thick carbon honeycomb lattice, have been used to filter different hydrogen isotopes. Photo by Tatiana Shepeleva/Shutterstock
Membranes made of graphene, an atom-thick carbon honeycomb lattice, have been used to filter different hydrogen isotopes. Photo by Tatiana Shepeleva/Shutterstock

MANCHESTER, England, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Just a few days into 2016, and the first graphene story of the year is already here. New research further suggests there's nothing graphene can't do. The wonder material's latest feat is the production of heavy water -- water with higher levels of the hydrogen isotope deuterium.

Graphene sieves work as an ultra-fine filter, separating hydrogen atoms with single-proton nuclei from heavier deuterium atoms. The isotope deuterium is a hydrogen atom with both a proton and a neutron in its nucleus.

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Deuterium is used as a tracer in chemistry, biochemistry and environmental sciences. Nuclear power plant operations require significant amounts of heavy water.

The new graphene technology could be scaled to produce large amounts of heavy water much more cheaply and efficiently than current methods.

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"This is really the first membrane shown to distinguish between subatomic particles, all at room temperature," study author Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Manchester, said in a press release. "Now that we showed that it is a fully scalable technology, we hope it will quickly find its way to real applications."

Researchers say the membrane filter could also be used to filter out the less stable and dangerous radioactive isotope tritium -- a toxic byproduct of electricity production at nuclear power plants.

"We were stunned to see that a membrane can be used to separate subatomic particles," said co-author Irina Grigorieva. "It is a really simple set up. We hope to see applications of these filters not only in analytical and chemical tracing technologies but also in helping to clean nuclear waste from radioactive tritium."

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