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Graphene could work wonders in water purification

University of Manchester academics make waves again with the discovery of a new, potentially humanitarian use for the Nobel Prize-winning wonder material

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Since its accidental discovery in Manchester in 2004, graphene has fascinated the scientific community around the globe. Numerous methods have been attempted to harness graphene’s exceptional properties in every imaginable field, the latest being desalination.

For years, attempts had been made to create ultra-thin graphene-based purifiers that convert seawater into clean drinking water. Unfortunately, all the membranes resulted in swelling when placed in water. Swelling inadvertently caused an increase in the space between adjoining sheets and reduced the efficiency of the sheets to trap small molecules.

However, an innovative solution to this problem was proposed in this month’s issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The authors – who belong to a group in the National Graphene Institute at The University of Manchester – developed graphene-oxide membranes capable of controlling pore size. In order to avoid swelling, the sheets were stored under high humidity conditions and embedded in epoxy resin.

“Realisation of scalable membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale is a significant step forward,” said Professor Rahul Nair, lead author of the publication.

“This is the first clear-cut experiment in this regime. We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sieve sizes.”

The innovation is a low-cost, sustainable and reliable alternative to current bulky desalination systems. When brought to fruition, it could be a game-changer in countries with poor access to drinking water. This development could have far-reaching consequences such as improving child health and empowering women who currently spend a significant part of their days gathering water.

Additionally, the United Nations forewarns that by 2025, 14% of the world will suffer from water scarcity. Tunable graphene-oxide filters could potentially save the world from the impending water crisis. However, the job is only half-done. The hurdles of accessibility and durability need to be overcome before the wonder material can work its magic across the world.