Researchers have developed a novel way to create cleaner water and soil, using a solution of nanoparticles to break down pollutants. The research, which involved shining ultraviolet (UV) light on the nanoparticles, could lead to more accessible clean drinking water and safer soil in the future.
Published in Nature Communications, the research was led by scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S. Essentially, it involved using nanoparticles made of biodegradable polymers, which are usually used for things such as drug delivery in the medical world. Using these same nanoparticles in water and soil, the scientists found they had other applications.
Nanoparticles have been used in environmental clean-ups before, but previous methods have required very strong magnets, and toxic by-products were also impossible to avoid. By using UV light instead, these researchers have demonstrated a cheaper, simpler and cleaner method that has wider applications.
When introduced to contaminated water and soil, the nanoparticles bound to specific chemicals, such as pesticides. By shining UV light on them, they would then clump together into microscopic lumps of the contaminants, which could be easily removed. As a consequence, the nanoparticles were also removed in the lumps, meaning no toxic by-products were left behind. This is something that has not been done before.
“We can remove the particles with UV light, we don’t need magnets, and we don’t have toxic material in the environment after use,” lead author Ferdinand Brandl of the University of Regensburg told IFLScience. To test the toxicity of the water and prove it was safe, the researchers used zebrafish embryos, with only those in the nanoparticle-treated water surviving.
Brandl said that with this method it “would be possible” to make cleaner drinking water, although they didn’t actually try drinking it on this occasion. “That’s what we had in mind when we thought about the application in the first place,” he said. In theory, it is also possible that soil could be decontaminated for use in areas such as farming.
At the moment, the nanoparticles must be stored in a liquid, but Brandl said they could be made into a powder to pour onto contaminated water.
While he isn’t planning to develop this research much further himself, he hopes that others might be able to bring some of the applications to life. “If someone really wants to pursue this project, it would be possible to have some pilot scale or study applications in a few years,” he said. “It’s not very complicated to scale up the process and make larger quantities.”