An ingenious way of ridding rivers and seas of microplastics has been developed crucially, without harming micro-organisms.
Study senior author Shaobin Wang, a Professor of chemical engineering at the University of Adelaide, explained that, although often invisible to the naked eye, microplastics are ‘ubiquitous’ pollutants.
He said some, such as the exfoliating beads found in popular cosmetics, are simply too small to be filtered out during industrial water treatment. Others are produced indirectly, when larger debris like soda bottles or tires weather amid sun and sand.
But, using tiny coil-shaped carbon-based magnets, researchers in Australia have found a way of purging the plastic waste that poses a global environmental threat – with damaging health consequences for humans, fish and animals alike.
Prof Wang said: ‘Microplastics adsorb organic and metal contaminants as they travel through water and release these hazardous substances into aquatic organisms when eaten, causing them to accumulate all the way up the food chain.
‘Carbon nanosprings are strong and stable enough to break these microplastics down into compounds that do not pose such a threat to the marine ecosystem.’
To decompose the microplastics, the research team had to generate short-lived chemicals called reactive oxygen species, which trigger chain reactions that cut the various long molecules that make up microplastics into tiny and harmless segments that dissolve in water.
But reactive oxygen species are often produced using heavy metals, such as iron or cobalt, which are dangerous pollutants in their own right.
So, the researchers found a greener solution in the form of carbon nanotubes laced with nitrogen to help boost generation of reactive oxygen species.