Researchers led by Nobel Prize winner Sir Andre Geim from University of Manchester in UK have shown that membranes made from graphene "can act as a sieve, separating protons – nuclei of hydrogen – from heavier nuclei of hydrogen isotope deuterium".

The use of graphene filters in the nuclear industry could have "significant implications" in terms of major cost savings and the cleanup of nuclear waste, according to the research findings published in the journal Science and posted on the University of Manchester web site.

"Graphene can simplify production of heavy water and help clean nuclear waste by filtering different isotopes of hydrogen," say the researchers.

This means that producing heavy water for NPPs could be ten times less energy intensive, simpler and cheaper than conventional methods. Heavy hydrogen, deuterium, is widely used in analytical and chemical tracing technologies and also as heavy water used to moderate and cool some types of power and research reactors. According to details released by the university: "The process could mean producing heavy water for nuclear power plants could be 10 times less energy intensive, simpler and cheaper using graphene."

The university said: "The current separation technologies for production of heavy water are extremely energy intensive, and have presented a major scientific and industrial problem," the university said. "Now graphene promises do so efficiently."

Dr Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo, University of Manchester postdoctoral researcher and first author of the paper, said: "This is really the first membrane shown to distinguish between subatomic particles, all at room temperature. Now that we showed that it is a fully scalable technology, we hope it will quickly find its way to real applications."

Professor Irina Grigorieva, who co-authored the research, said: "We were stunned to see that a membrane can be used to separate subatomic particles. It is a really simple set up. 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."

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2010 to Sir Andre and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester "for ground-breaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene".