The latest game changing use for graphene is not in its ability to revolutionize mobile technology—although it can do that too—but as a filter to clean nuclear wastewater much more efficiently than current methods.

New research from the University of Manchester, led by Sir Andre Geim, has demonstrated how a graphene membrane can be used as a sieve to make the production of heavy water ten times less energy intensive. This breakthrough would also make the production of heavy water significantly cheaper and simpler than current production methods.

So what exactly is heavy water? The term refers to water in which the hydrogen in the molecules is partly or wholly replaced by the isotope deuterium.  Heavy water is commonly used as a moderator in nuclear reactors, as power plants require heavy water by the tons of thousands in order to operate.

Sir Geim’s team found that membranes made of graphene can act as a sieve to separate protons—nuclei of hydrogen—for the heavier nuclei of deuterium. The reason this is such a major breakthrough? This is the first time a membrane has been made that is capable of distinguishing between subatomic particles.

Specifically, tritium—a radioactive isotope of hydrogen—needs to be safely removed as a byproduct of electricity generation at nuclear fission plans. Graphene’s ability to safely filter out this radioactive substance is a huge step forward for the future of nuclear technology, especially since the filter process is fully scalable.

“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.” – Professor Irina Grigorieva, University of Manchester