Aug 17, 2019 | Updated: 07:24 AM EDT

Microplastics are No Match for These Tiny Magnetic Coils

Aug 04, 2019 04:59 AM EDT

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The effects of plastic in our environment has greatly influenced our way of living.  However, as the number of threats caused by plastics increases, so does its use.  And as alarming as it already is, we may be inhaling so much plastic and not even know it.

Now, scientists are working on ways to decompose these microplastics that block the waterways and threaten the health of people and other animals.  In a report in Matter just recently, some kind of nanomaterials were used to clean off about 50 percent of the microplastics in water.  The researchers foresee that these nanomaterials may be incorporated in water treatment facilities and may prevent these microplastic pollutants from entering the environment and waterways.

The researchers used nitrogen-coated carbon nanotubes and mixed them with a chemical compound called peroxymonosulfate.  After mixing, the nanotubes generated reactive oxygen species, which erode the microplastics and grind them into smaller pieces.  When the water is heated, the process was observed to speed up.  The tubes were embedded with manganese inside, giving them their magnetic property, which was important so that the scientists were able to fish them out to be reused afterwards.

Chemical engineer from Curtin University Jian Kang, along with some of his colleagues, tested the technique with 80-milliliter samples contaminated with microplastics at 120 degrees Celsius over eight hours and observed a reduction of about 30 to 50 percent.

There were, however, some chemical byproducts like aldehydes and carboxylic acids.  But Northeastern University environmental engineer Long Chen said that these are not major environmental hazards.  When Kang and his team exposed the water containing the byproducts of the experiment to green algae for two weeks, they found that the algae were not harmed.  Wageningen University & Research environmental scientist Bart Koelmans says that there are still a lot of tests to be done, like effects of the byproducts in other living organisms in water ecosystems, in order to gauge the environmental effects and risks posed by this microplastic degradation technique. 

Chen added that the use of increased temperature may not be feasible in large scale water treatment plants as these facilities would need to process a large volume of water over a short period of time.  Right now, Kang and his team are working on their magnetic nanotubes to degrade microplastics to increase the efficiency of the technique, without increasing the temperature.

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