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These magnetic ‘nanosprings’ decompose microplastics

By Paul Grad |

Microplastics — a subgroup of plastics with an effective diameter less than 5 mm — are ubiquitous pollutants. They adsorb organic and metal pollutants that are ingested by aquatic organisms, and accumulated all the way up the food chain.

Using tiny coil-shaped carbon-based magnets, researchers from the University of Adelaide (Adelaide, Australia; www.adelaide.edu.au), Edith Cowan University, Curtin University (both Perth, Australia), and Guangdong University of Technology (Guangzhou, China) have developed a new way of purging water sources of such microplastics without harming nearby microorganisms. “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,” says Shaobin Wang, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Adelaide.

To decompose the microplastics, the researchers generated short-lived, reactive-oxygen species, which trigger chain reactions that chop the long microplastics molecules into tiny harmless segments that dissolve in water. However, reactive-oxygen species are often produced using heavy metals, such as iron and cobalt, which are pollutants in their own right. The researchers found a “greener” solution in the form of carbon nanotubes laced with nitrogen to boost the generation of reactive-oxygen species.

Shaped like springs, the carbon nanotubes remove a significant fraction of microplastics in just 8 h while remaining stable themselves. The coiled shape increases stability and maximizes reactive surface area. Moreover, the springs become magnetic by the inclusion of a small amount of manganese. This makes it easy to collect them from wastewater streams for repeated use.

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