March 1, 2024

Researchers develop ecological ‘magnet’ to combat microplastics

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Schematic overview of NADES extraction of plastic particles. Scanning electron microscopy images of (a) PET, (b) PS, and (c) PLA particles; (d) Hydrophobic NADES extracting microplastic particles from aqueous solution. 1d, from left to right: (1) PET plastic particles in aqueous solution, (2) NADES (top phase) and PET plastic particles in aqueous solution (1:1 v/v) before mixing, (3) mixing of NADES (decanoic acid: menthol = 1:1) with PET plastic particles in aqueous solution (1:1 v/v) immediately after mixing, and (4) the PET plastic particles migrated to NADES after separation of phases. Credit: Scientific Reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-37490-6

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Schematic overview of NADES extraction of plastic particles. Scanning electron microscopy images of (a) PET, (b) PS, and (c) PLA particles; (d) Hydrophobic NADES extracting microplastic particles from aqueous solution. 1d, from left to right: (1) PET plastic particles in aqueous solution, (2) NADES (top phase) and PET plastic particles in aqueous solution (1:1 v/v) before mixing, (3) mixing of NADES (decanoic acid: menthol = 1:1) with PET plastic particles in aqueous solution (1:1 v/v) immediately after mixing, and (4) the PET plastic particles migrated to NADES after separation of phases. Credit: Scientific Reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-37490-6

Plastic pollution is a pressing environmental issue, and researchers at the University of Kentucky’s Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment are leading the charge with an innovative solution.

The college’s Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) has partnered with the UK’s Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering to tackle the tiny, often invisible plastic particles now found in the world’s oceans.

Their research, published in Scientific Reportsfocuses on an intriguing solution: the use of natural deep eutectic solvents (NADES) to capture and remove these miniature particles from water.

“The challenge of micro- and nanoplastics in our environment has received intense attention recently,” said BAE Associate Professor Jian Shi. “These tiny particles, often invisible to the naked eye, are the remains of larger pieces of plastic broken down by sunlight and physical stress. Their size makes them notoriously difficult to remove using conventional methods like centrifugation or filtration, which are either inefficient or very expensive. .”

Plastic is a durable and inexpensive material, making it a staple in daily life. However, its strength is also its environmental downfall.

Plastics do not break down easily, leading to huge piles of waste. Over time, these plastics break down into smaller fragments. The smallest, nanoplastics, are so small that they cannot be seen without a microscope. Their size makes them a significant danger, as they can be ingested by marine life and enter the human food chain.

“Think of NADES as a kind of ‘magnet’ that specifically attracts and holds these small pieces of plastic,” said Czarena Crofcheck, a BAE professor and co-author of the study. “Basically, the NADES mix with the water and ‘stick’ to the plastics, pulling them out of the water.”

NADES molecules can form bonds with plastic molecules, a bit like Velcro works: one side sticks to the other. This property makes NADES particularly good at grabbing and retaining these plastic particles.

NADES are also unique because they are effective and environmentally friendly. They are made from natural materials, which means they do not add more pollutants to the environment while cleaning existing ones.

“Our approach introduces the concept of deep eutectic solvents, which are unique in their composition and behavior,” said Shi. “Derived from natural sources like plants and coconuts, these solvents transform from solids to liquids when mixed, creating an effective way to extract these tiny plastic particles from water.”

The researchers focused on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), such as that found in plastic bottles, polystyrene (PS), used in materials such as peanut packaging, and polylactic acid (PLA), used in plastic films and food containers. Using computer simulations, they were able to see how these interactions work on a minute scale.

Their experiments revealed that certain NADES are particularly good at extracting these types of plastic from water. This discovery was crucial, offering a targeted approach to removing plastics.

The research presents a new and effective way to clean water from micro- and nanoplastics. Additionally, it provides a path to recycling these plastics, resulting in significant environmental benefits.

“Imagine being able to decrease our global environmental footprint,” Crofcheck said. “With contributions from chemical engineering to molecular simulations, we have been able to deepen our understanding of why these solvents are more effective at extracting plastics from water. This theoretical understanding is crucial for advancing practical applications and future research.”

Although the research is still in the development phase, the team is optimistic about its potential applications.

“Our next step is to test these solvents on a larger scale and in diverse environmental conditions,” said Shi. “We believe that NADES can be a game changer in our fight against plastic pollution.”

More information:
Jameson R. Hunter et al, Green solvent-mediated extraction of micro- and nanoplastic particles from water, Scientific Reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-37490-6

Diary information:
Scientific Reports

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