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Graphene oxide causes radioactive material to "clump" out of water


January 12, 2013

Scientists have discovered that graphene oxide flakes are very effective at removing radioactive contaminants from water 
(Image: Shutterstock)

Scientists have discovered that graphene oxide flakes are very effective at removing radioactive contaminants from water (Image: Shutterstock)

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Removing radioactive material from contaminated water, such as that in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plants, could be getting a little easier. Scientists from Houston’s Rice University and Lomonosov Moscow State University have discovered that when flakes of graphene oxide are added to such water, it causes the radionuclides to condense into clumps. Those clumps can then be separated and disposed of.

Presently, bentonite clays and activated carbon are used to remove radioactive contaminants from water. The graphene oxide flakes are reportedly much more effective, however. Their large surface area allows each flake to adsorb a large amount of toxins, and the clumping action occurs within minutes. The clumped material is still radioactive, and must be handled and disposed of accordingly.

In a test of the technique, the one-atom-thick microscopic flakes were added to water containing uranium and plutonium, along with substances like calcium and sodium, that have been shown to negatively affect their adsorption. The graphene oxide was nonetheless able to “clump” the worst toxins quickly, regardless of the water’s pH value.

A vial holding graphene oxide flakes in solution (left), and one in which those flakes have caused simulated nuclear waste to form into clumps (right)

“Where you have huge pools of radioactive material, like at Fukushima, you add graphene oxide and get back a solid material from what were just ions in a solution,” said Rice chemist James Tour, who led the research along with Moscow’s Stepan Kalmykov. “Then you can skim it off and burn it. Graphene oxide burns very rapidly and leaves a cake of radioactive material you can then reuse.”

Along with its use in disaster scenarios, Tour also believes the technique could be used to remove naturally-occurring radioactive material encountered in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) operations, and in the mining of rare earth metals.

Source: Rice University

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

The clumping action is referred to as flocculation in the water and wastewater treatment field.


Apparently Graphene is the wonder material that will save mankind's sorry behinds. Any investors interested?

Nacho Lotitto

Graphene, lots of talk about it. Yet I have yet to see ANY products make it into my hands......lots of talk, blah blah blah. Lets see PRODUCTS.

Brian Mcc

Brian I would say that comment is highly naive. This material is in it's infancy having only been known of for as many years as you an count on one hand. There are a number of products in development currently at lab stage using Graphene. As with any new technology it is very expensive and very time consuming to develop these but I know for fact there are groups of people and funding pushing them through.. 20 years ago we were in a similar situation with carbon fibre however after time and investment we now have a material which is used in everyday life. I imagine the life cycle with Graphene will be the same, the uses in batteries and membrane technology are vast so it is a material worth pursuing. I for one am excited that they have found a use for Graphene oxide (the less pure version) which is away from the mainstream of research.

Mark B

Unless there is a manufacturing breakthrough, comparable to, say, the Haber Process for making ammonia, I imagine it will be quite a while before the price of graphene oxide gets down anywhere near that of clay or charcoal.


Activated carbon should be just about as easy to remove and is a lot cheaper.


I'm guessing cost isn't really important with a potential disaster of such a large scale.

Alex Aricci

re; Alex Aricci

Cost is always important, otherwise eventually you will run out of people stupid enough to loan you money.

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