When you think of radioactive waste (and hopefully, you don’t think about it often), you probably don’t think about the massive clean up efforts that happen for years after a disaster. In 2011, the Fukushima nuclear plants suffered severe damage from the earthquake and tsunami. The entire area is nearly a ghost town now due to radioactive waste concerns. From an international collaboration, two scientists have discovered a new use for graphene oxide.
In an experiment, the scientists simulated radioactive waste in their lab so they could test how the graphene oxide reacted. Without getting too technical, when graphene oxide mixed with waste particles, and attracted to the worst toxins, binds itself to them. From there, giant clumps of radioactive waste are formed, within minutes of the graphene oxide’s introduction. The two researchers working on this project worked on removing the 30 rare Earth elements on the periodic table from the simulated waste liquid.
In addition to graphene oxide playing a major role in cleaning up radioactive waste, it can also help clean up the same radionuclides present in fracking fluids. One of the scientists, James Tour, said, “When groundwater comes out of a well and it’s radioactive above a certain level, it can’t be put back into the ground. Companies have to ship contaminated water to repository sties around the country at a very large expense.” The idea is to be able to use graphene oxide as a way of clumping these radionuclides together while still being able to use the water that comes from fracking.
Since this information is new and these experiments have only been performed with simulated waste, there is no real way to predict what could happen with graphene oxide. However, if it can help clean up radioactive waste spills and remove radionuclides from fracking water, who knows how else it could be used. Clean water will become a major concern in the coming years, so everything we can do to help conserve what we have will prove to be very helpful.