New Coral Material Mimics Reefs by Removing Toxic Heavy Metals

First Posted: Jul 24, 2015 12:36 PM EDT

A new material that mimics coral could help remove toxic heavy materials from the ocean. The new material could be huge when it comes to conservation efforts and cleaning up the environment.

Toxic heavy metal ions like mercury, lead and arsenic are released into the water through human activity, including manufacturing and industrial processes. The ocean, in particular, has suffered major pollution over the years. Because of this, plants and animals absorb the heavy metals.

Heavy metals, in particular, are toxic to corals. Even at low concentrations, small amounts of heavy metal pollution can kill corals. This heightened toxicity is due to coral being very efficient at collecting heavy metals. That's why scientists decided to focus on creating a material that could also absorb heavy metals.

In this case, the scientists created coral-like nanoplates using aluminum oxide. Previously, aluminum oxide has been used to remove pollutants, but the structure of the material caused it to not perform very well. The new nanoplates, though, curl themselves up like a coral-like structure, which behaves in a similar way to real coral. This makes the material far more effective.

"Adsorption is an easy way to remove pollutants from water, so developing new products that can do this is a big challenge in environmental remediation," said Xianbiao Wang, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The chemical and physical structure of such products is very important, it is interesting to design and fabricate adsorbents with different structures to see how they behave. In particular, materials that mimic biological adsorbents like coral have potentially huge applications."

Already, the researchers have tested the new materials to remove mercury from water. It actually removed 2.5 times more mercury from the water than traditional nanoparticles. With that said, the researchers are still looking forward to further improvements.

The findings are published in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science.

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