Researchers Have Created Nanosprings To Break Down Microplastics

Dhir Acharya - Aug 15, 2019, 7:38 am IST


Engineers have created carbon nanosprings that break down microplastics, which pollutes rivers and oceans, without harmful impacts on microorganisms.

Engineers from China and Australia have created carbon nanosprings, giving hope for breaking down microplastics, which pollutes rivers and oceans, without harmful impacts on microorganisms.

In addition, the engineers have designed these tiny springs to become magnetic after use, which means we can recollect and reuse them.

The project, described in the journal Matter, brought together several researchers from the Guangdong University of Technology in China, Australia’s Edith Cowan University, Curtin University, and the University of Adelaide.

Microplastic-debris-in-cosmetics-1
Microplastic debris in cosmetics

While we cannot see microplastics with our naked eyes, these are very common pollutants. Some of them are just so small that we cannot filter out in industrial water treatment, for example, the exfoliating beads existing in cosmetics.  Others come from larger debris such as soda tires and bottles as they weather.

In their latest research, the team created reactive oxygen species, the short-lived chemicals that trigger chain reactions to chop long molecules (which make up microplastics) into harmless, tiny segments that will dissolve in the water.

However, generally, we need heavy metals like cobalt or iron to produce reactive oxygen species. These metals are dangerous pollutants and can’t be used for the sake of the environment. So, the team used carbon nanotubes laced with nitrogen for boosting the production of reactive oxygen species.

Carbon-nanosprings-2
Carbon nanosprings

The catalysts for the carbon nanotube removed microplastics significantly within only eight hours, according to researchers. Meanwhile, they are still stable in the harsh oxidative conditions required to break down microplastics.

And with the coiled shape, the stability is increased while the reactive surface area is maximized. And when the researchers include a small quantity of manganese far from the nanotubes’ surface so that it doesn’t leach into the water, the tiny springs became magnetic.

“Having magnetic nanotubes is particularly exciting because this makes it easy to collect them from real wastewater streams for repeated use in environmental remediation,” said Xiaoguang Duan, a co-author from the University of Adelaide.

Microplastics-come-from-different-sources-3
Microplastics come from different sources

 

Because each microplastics has different chemical properties, the next step for the team is to make sure the nanosprings is effective with microplastics of different shapes, origins, and compositions.

In addition, the researchers want to continue to confirm that any chemical compounds that occur as by-products or intermediates during microplastics decomposition is non-toxic.

The team also hopes that they can harness these by-products as a source of energy for microorganisms plagued by polluting plastics.

“If plastic contaminants can be repurposed as food for algae growth, it will be a triumph for using biotechnology to solve environmental problems in ways that are both green and cost efficient,” stated senior author Sahobin Wang from Adelaide.

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