Feature stories | Technology & innovation | Materials, extraction

Russian and US researchers discover new “phenomenally rapid” radioactive waste cleaner

5 Feb '13
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

In a worthwhile international collaborative effort, Russian and American scientists have added another potentially invaluable entry to an already expanding list of graphene’s useful applications. The ‘wonder-material,’ discovered nine years ago by ethnic Russians in the UK, is now believed to be capable of withdrawing radioactive substances from aqueous solutions at a “phenomenal” speed. With this property, the researchers think graphene is a perfect cleaner for areas contaminated with radionuclides and also a helping hand in rare earths and shale oil/gas production.

The research has been conducted by an interacting group of chemists representing Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) and Rice University, Houston, TX. Its results were published in detail in this year’s Issue 7 of the international Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics journal.

MSU is Russia’s largest and most famous institution of higher education set up in 1755 and currently training a student body of approximately 47,000 at as many as 39 departments. With its 15 research centers the university has developed enough R&D capabilities to join an array of international research programs.

Its partner, Rice University, is a small but powerful educational hub ranked one of the U.S.’ top teaching and research universities. Its key philosophy is fostering a collaborative culture that crosses disciplines.

Meet a “silicon replacer” and “desktop collider”…

Graphene, the material at the heart of the research, was first discovered at University of Manchester in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, both ethnic Russians and the winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Graphene already has many names, including “the most promising modern material,” “replacer of silicon” or “desktop collider.” Coming in the form of one-atom-thick carbon film, it is said to possess superior strength and high electric conduction properties.

One of its immediate applications is in networks, enabling data transmission at a speed that exceeds that of a modern FOCL by “hundreds of times.” The material has the potential for being used in smartphones, in medicine as a drug delivery vehicle, and in computer microchips.

As the Russo-American team has shown, graphene has more about it than it looked just a few years ago.

…and now meet an effective radionuclide remover

The discovery reportedly emerged from studies into the properties of graphene oxide, a material that came on the heels of graphene itself and immediately offered a range of useful applications from electronics to cancer drug delivery, to chemical catalysis, even to bactericidal medical treatment. It can be deoxidized to get pure graphene and is much less costly to obtain than its basic element.

Working in parallel in Moscow and Houston, the researchers found that the microscopic flakes of graphene oxide can easily bind radionuclides of various origins by ‘assembling’ their separate ions into a solid.

The compound is said to perform marvelously in radiation-contaminated aqueous solutions that contain uranium and plutonium, and also have sodium and calcium—substances that are known to impede absorption. In the experiments, the graphene oxide flakes pulled polluting substances out of the water and then rapidly gummed themselves up into tiny lumps easy to remove from the water and dispose of.

For Stepan Kalmykov of MSU, a research team member, the “phenomenal speed of water purification” came as a real eye-opener. With all the absorption inhibitors graphene oxide proved “much faster and more efficient” than a variety of conventional sorbents, such as bentonite clay or granulated activated carbon routinely used to get rid of nuclear waste. Radioactive impurities precipitated “almost in a flash,” the scientist told the media later.

According to James Tour of Rice University, the discovery may be a boon to agencies responsible for cleaning radioactively polluted areas. It could still be a helper for the Fukushima-Daichi decontamination teams working to eliminate the aftermath of the March 2011 disaster at the Japanese nuclear power station.

A much healthier solution in rare earths production…

What has resulted in the above nuclear waste cleaner began a few years ago as a narrowly focused effort to withdraw radioactive isotopes from rare-earth metals—and has recently suggested another possible application of graphene oxide.

Actinides and lanthanides—a group of 30 periodic table elements commonly known as rare-earth metals, or just rare earths—are in strong demand from a host of electronics makers. But production of the metals poses a serious environmental and health threat exactly because of the radioactive isotopes, forcing governments such as the U.S. to outlaw mining for the rare earths for safety reasons.

Other nations disregard the threat. China, for one, is a global monopoly in rare earths extraction as a result.

Using graphene oxide to de-isotope rare earth ores could weaken China’s monopolistic position substantially and pave the way for increased global supply of the valuable minerals, the Russian and US scientists hope.

…and in shale hydrocarbon extraction

In the advancing US-led crusade for shale oil and gas as an alternative to the OPEC dominion in the traditional oil industry the new radionuclide removal technique may also be of much use. The developers believe it could help reduce both the cost of production and its harmful consequences for the environment and man.

The most widespread production method for shale hydrocarbons is hydraulic fracturing, or simply fracking, which applies a pressurized mixture of fluid, sand and chemicals to cause the propagation of fractures in rock formations.

It is a highly unwholesome procedure, as the water pumped out of the fractures to release oil and gas ‘teems’ with radionuclides and therefore requires lengthy treatment, thus adding to the overall cost of extraction.

With graphene oxide’s newly discovered efficacy in rapidly removing long-lived radioactive pollutants from water graphene’s ‘younger brother’ could make a huge difference both in the fracking technology and its economics.
Oleg Kouzbit, managing editor: “I’m glad you join us here and take The Bridge walk for Marchmont’s weekly review of the Russian regions’ innovative present and future. Stay close and you’ll find out more of how Russia is bridging the existing gap between its researchers and businesses.”
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