Putting graphene's grandiose hype in context

May 1, 2017
Claimed by many to be the answer to water scarcity around the world, is graphene really going to revolutionise water treatment?

By Tom Freyberg, Chief editor

Claimed by many to be the answer to water scarcity around the world, is graphene really going to revolutionise water treatment?

Early last month the topic of water treatment was the centre of media attention. Headlines elaborately suggested scientists had found the answer to water scarcity. Graphene had once again been touted as a miraculous technology to revolutionise water filtration.

For those unaware of what graphene is, it was first isolated by the University of Manchester in the UK in 2004. Since then it’s been heralded as a new super material, stronger than steel and diamond yet flexible with heat and electrical conductivity properties.

The recent breakthrough showed that scientists had found a way to stop graphene oxide membranes swelling up during water filtration. This had previously been a problem. When immersed in water, the membranes would expand, allowing small salts and water to pass through - defeating the object of the membrane. The university’s Dr Raul Nair demonstrated that by placing walls made of epoxy resin either side of the graphene, it stopped the expansion.

There is now a full on global graphene rush. As can be seen from our coverage on page 12, partnerships have been established in Australia and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute is concentrating its efforts on this area. Top R&D teams from around the world are focusing their efforts on scaling up graphene and bringing products to market. From mountain bikes to solar panels, graphene could potentially disrupt and improve several industries in the far future.

While the media went a little crazy over the latest development (even the BBC World News got in touch with us) - it’s important to put the news in context. It’s extremely early days. To filter water with a new material smaller than a postage stamp is one thing, producing millions of litres a day of water using the technology is another.

In other material developments, as you can read on page 14 Dutch utility Waterschapsbedrijf Limburg has converted a water treatment plant into a real time, full sized laboratory. One of the novel materials being tested is a self-repairing concrete. If cracks occur, calcite-precipitating bacteria embedded in the novel ‘self-healing’ material - developed in collaboration with Delft Technical University - automatically produce lime to repair the damage.

Such a breakthrough could change the operation & maintenance dynamics on water infrastructure such as tanks. Again, before the mainstream press jumps on the bandwagon with exaggerated headlines, this must be put into context. It’s unlikely, at least for the time being, that entire buildings will be constructed using this material due to additional cost.

It’s more likely that the material will be used for structures that are hard to reach or repair. Either way, both developments show that promising technology is being developed and applied to water. Enjoy the issue.

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