Undoing damage that’s been done to the environment by industry and other human-created advances is top of mind for many scientific researchers. To that end, researchers at the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Sciences have developed a so-called “super sponge” that can clean up toxic mercury from large bodies of water such as lakes and rivers.
Mercury toxicity in the myriad lakes in the state of Minnesota is a serious problem, which inspired lead researcher Professor Abdennour Abbas to tackle the issue of trying to rid the state’s waters of mercury.
“When you have over a thousand impaired lakes in Minnesota, 10 percent of newborn babies in northern Minnesota have mercury in their blood, and when you cannot eat fish more then twice a week, you know you have a big and urgent problem that needs to be solved,” he told Design News in an interview.
After modification with nanotechnology, this sponge captures mercury and kills microbes and can be used to clean up rivers and lakes. Researchers at the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Sciences developed the sponge to help solve the problem of mercury pollution in the thousands of lakes in Minnesota, among other applications. (Source: Ke Xu/ University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Sciences)
Indeed, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cutting mercury emissions to the latest established effluent limit standards would result in 130,000 fewer asthma attacks, 4,700 fewer heart attacks, and 11,000 fewer premature deaths each year, Abbas said. This would add up to at least $37 billion to $90 billion in annual monetized benefits annually.
“The 2015 EPA Mercury and Air Toxics Standards regulation was estimated to cost the industry around of $9.6 billion annually in 2020,” he said. “Our new technology has a potential of bringing this cost down and make it easy for the industry to meet regulatory requirements.”
The sponge created by Abbas and his team can absorb mercury from a polluted water source within seconds by using the application of nanotechnology, he said. It needs only to be the size of a household sponge because there are systems that can circulate the water in the lakes, Abbas said.
“A sponge is the easiest way to take and expel water without using any equipment,” he said. “If there is a way to capture the contaminants inside, then you have a cheap way to clean water. The mercury sponge we developed contains inside tiny particles of selenium that specifically capture mercury and prevent the growth of bacteria, and it does that in less than a minute, which is a record-breaking performance.”
The sponge—which converts the contamination into a non-toxic complex so it can be disposed of in a landfill after use—also kills bacterial and fungal microbes, Abbas said. It also can remove more than 90 percent of silver and 70 percent of lead, and a number of other pollutants. “We are currently working on different sponges that can remove other heavy metals such as arsenic,” he added.
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