Scientists Found a New, Environmentally Friendly Way to Clean Air, Water, and Soil

As time goes by, humanity is in need of clean air, soil, and water even more. It’s only normal that scientists and researchers have been trying to improve or solve this problem. Well, we’re getting closer and closer to that.

An international team led by Professor Juan Carlos Colmenares from the Institute of Physical Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences, has found a way to make a material which is able to purify air from various toxic compounds. The good thing is that it’s cheap to produce as well as effective.

Prof. Colmenares said, “Most important is the material we made at the laboratory. It not only adsorbs toxic vapors from the air but also, thanks to its photocatalytic properties, can break them into less toxic elements.”

Using two compounds that are not expensive, environmentally friendly, and easy to get, titanium dioxide and graphite oxide, the team wants to make it widely available.

The team used ultrasound to make organic and inorganic substance to cooperate. The organic counterpart works to catch the toxic particles, while the organic one destroys them through photocatalysis.

Ultrasonic manipulation significantly widens the active surface and chemical heterogeneity of the new material. This allows it to have higher detoxification efficiency against all those bad things from the air.

“Thanks to the ultrasound waves, we get excellent dispersion and the layer of graphite oxide sort of rests on the surface of titanium dioxide,” said Prof. Colmenares.

How this material came to be

soldiers usually deal with toxic vapor or gas, so they need protection and the researchers initially designed the technology for them
Soldiers usually deal with toxic vapor or gas, so they need protection and the researchers initially designed the technology for them

At first, researchers planned to incorporate this material as some kind of an additive filter layer for soldiers’ gas masks or into fabrics to make uniforms that protect soldiers from toxic gas or chemicals on the combat field.

I understand if some of you wince knowing that this material was firstly tested or used on something that’s not peaceful. However, the potential applications are much broader and not war-related.

This material can be used for industrial suits for workers who get toxic vapors daily. The professor said, “Just milligrams in a suit would be sufficient. If only dispersed properly. The only downside is that potential fabrics should be artificial polymers rather than natural cotton or flax.”

That’s the catch, though. Clothes get washed, so scientists must find a way to make the new material stay attached to the fabric. If microplastic fibers come from washed clothes and linen, then it’s a big possibility that the nanomaterial can be removed from them as well. Plus, we should reduce artificial fabrics so that there won’t be more microplastic pollutions.

“We would not like our nanomaterial to end in rivers and seas. We aim for being environmentally friendly all the way, not only at the level of destroying air toxins,” said the professor.

Thankfully, through ultrasonication, the active phases can be anchored quickly and stably both on cotton and carbon textiles.

Additionally, if this technology gets developed further, it could help purify air, water, and soil as well. Although, the scientists have admittedly not examined the possibilities, yet.

“It mainly depends on whether we would safely deposit our nanomaterial on possible future carriers/substrates. While purifying water from toxins, we would not like to pollute it with these oxides; we would not want nanotoxicity, although in theory neither TiO2 nor graphite oxide is toxic to humans,” said the professor. “After all, who was not chewing on a pencil while at school?” he went on.

If the scientists could resolve this issue, we’d have a lot of potential. This new material could detoxify sewage in the paper and coke industries, or even neutralize highly toxic remnants of chemical weapons from World War II in the Baltic Sea.

“For now, we aim at sewage plants. Photocatalysis and nanocomposites can help where microbes cannot because the environment is too toxic for them,” said the professor.

The greatest challenge that photocatalysis has is soil. But with proper mixing, lighting, and a proper photocatalyst, it’s not totally impossible to remove herbicides or pesticides.

So, we might have cleaner air using environment-friendly materials soon. Although, we’re going to wait for a little longer for cleaner water and soil using this technology.

But, with the findings from another research, cleaner water is within reach. That’s the cool thing about science isn’t it? When one side isn’t able to discover something, the other side is.

Another discovery to clean water

A wastewater treatment plant in Dulmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Photo by Dietmar Rabich Wikimedia Commons
A wastewater treatment plant in Dulmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Photo by Dietmar Rabich Wikimedia Commons

Researchers from the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering have developed a way to clean up complex wastewater that usually contain a toxic cocktail of chemical pollutants using an electrochemical oxidation process.

“Our study, published in Algal Research, involved industrial wastewater that had been heavily contaminated with a cocktail of organic and inorganic species during a biofuel production process,” said Julia Ciarlini Jungers Soares, who is completing a PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering under the supervision of Dr. Alejandro Montoya.

In the experiment, the team designed the wastewater for the production of biofuels using naturally abundant microalgae. As a result, the water contained carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.

Then, they treat wastewater with electricity using specialized electrodes. The researchers discharged electricity and drove oxidation reactions near the electrode surfaces, transforming the organic contaminants into harmless gasses, ions or minerals.

“We have employed an incredibly powerful process that eliminates even the most persistent non-biodegradable pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals and pesticides, as well as various classes of organic compounds that can be found in many industrial effluents,” said Soares.

“The process is relatively simple, does not require the addition of chemicals or severe operation conditions, and does not produce additional waste streams,”

“Wastewater is a significant issue for our environment, as well as for many industries who use substantial volumes of water in their processes, such as in reactions, transport, and washing and cooling. Finding suitable solutions for reuse or disposal is often very challenging and costly,”

“The electrochemical method that we used can be readily applied to industries that must comply with strict regulations for wastewater disposal, such as pulp and paper processing, wineries, as well as pharmaceutical production facilities,”

“Worldwide, researchers are investigating methods for the development of biofuels from algae. Developing alternatives for the treatment and reuse of this industrial effluent is a hot research topic and can bring opportunities for energy and resource recovery within a circular bio-economy framework,” she explained.

After this discovery, the team wanted to carry out research that focuses on specific contaminants so that they can have a better understanding he chemical transformations that take place during electrochemical oxidation and will upscale the process.

Come to think of it, wastewater has the potential to be resourceful. If only we could manage it safely and in an eco-friendly way, wastewater could be an affordable as well as sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials.

How long will it take for us to be able to do all that? I think it’s only a matter of when. In the meantime, we do our best to support scientists or researchers so that they can keep finding and innovating.



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