Penn students use graphene to measure frac water contamination

Fracking diagram
Source: DollarPhotoClub

Two bioengineering students from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school have come up with an innovative way to measure ground water contamination from leaking fracking fluids. They propose to use graphene, which is pure carbon in the form of a very thin, nearly transparent sheet, one atom thick.

According to the International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, wastewater from fracking contains potentially toxic chemicals used in fracking fluid, as well as natural contaminants from deep underground; including total dissolved solids (e.g., salts, barium, strontium), organic pollutants (e.g., benzene, toluene) and normally occurring radioactive material (NORM) such as Radium 226.

There is a concern that these fluids can in certain cases leak into and contaminate drinking water, but it is a contentious issue, heavily disputed by the oil and gas lobby, and rather tricky to measure accurately and therefore to prove.

Teddy Guenin and Ashwin Amurthur – who are finalists for a $5000 prize through the University – stumbled upon the idea to use graphene to measure minuscule amounts of hydrocarbon benzene – a known carcinogen.

In its report on hydraulic fracturing and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2000, the EPA found that benzene remains in the ground after drilling and is “likely to be transported by groundwater.” Despite being deadly, benzene is difficult to measure as it occurs in fracking fluids in very low concentrations. Using graphene, the two students were able to measure benzene down to the picomolar level.

According to Amurthur, graphene is several millions times thinner than an average piece of paper, which allows it to have a high surface to volume ratio. It is this feature that allows graphene to detect such tiny amounts of benzene so easily.

Guenin, Amurthur’s partner, says if they were to win the money prize, they would also receive a commercial license from Penn nanotechnologies, which has a physics lab dedicated to graphene production.

Guenin commented on the two’s plans for graphene: “We envisioned this as something to sell to drilling companies … Somebody interested in having high quality sensing [technology] like local municipalities.”

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