Northwestern University engineers have developed a new sponge that can remove metals — including toxic heavy metals like lead and critical metals like cobalt — from contaminated water, leaving safe, drinkable water behind.
In proof-of-concept experiments, the researchers tested their new sponge on a highly contaminated sample of tap water, containing more than 1 part per million of lead. With one use, the sponge filtered lead to below detectable levels. researchers also were able to successfully recover metals and reuse the sponge for multiple cycles. The new sponge shows promise for future use as an inexpensive, easy-to-use tool in home water filters or large-scale environmental remediation efforts.
The study was published in the journal ACS ES&T Water. The paper outlines the new research and sets design rules for optimizing similar platforms for removing — and recovering — other heavy-metal toxins, including cadmium, arsenic, cobalt and chromium.
“The presence of heavy metals in the water supply is an enormous public health challenge for the entire globe,” said Northwestern’s Vinayak Dravid, senior author of the study. “It is a gigaton problem that requires solutions that can be deployed easily, effectively and inexpensively. That’s where our sponge comes in. It can remove the pollution and then be used again and again.”
When submerged into contaminated water, the nanoparticle-coated sponge effectively sequestered lead ions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that bottled drinking water is below 5 parts per billion of lead. In filtration trials, the sponge lowered the amount of lead to approximately 2 parts per billion, making it safe to drink.
If researchers could develop a sponge that selectively removes rare metals, including cobalt, from water, then those metals could be recycled into products like batteries.
“For renewable energy technologies, like batteries and fuel cells, there is a need for metal recovery,” Dravid said. “Otherwise, there is not enough cobalt in the world for the growing number of batteries. We must find ways to recover metals from very dilute solutions. Otherwise, it becomes poisonous and toxic, just sitting there in the water. We might as well make something valuable with it.”