Generally, rust is thought of as making water dirtier and unhealthy. Now, a new study has found a way to use rust and magnets to clean water. For this, researchers used nanoparticles that they call “smart rust”— previously used to extract many pollutants such as oil and microplastics from water bodies — to remove estrogen, which is potentially harmful to marine life.
The study, presented at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) 2023, uses special iron oxide nanoparticles that are magnetic and hence can be easily removed along with the pollutants in water. The researchers altered these particles to enable them to trap estrogen, which could save aquatic life.
“Our ‘smart rust’ is cheap, nontoxic and recyclable,” says Marcus Halik, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator, in a statement by ACS. “And we have demonstrated its use for all kinds of contaminants, showing the potential for this technique to improve water treatment dramatically.”
Researchers across the world are looking for environmentally friendly ways of removing increasing pollutants from water bodies that suffocate plants and other life forms. In this study, the primary materials used are iron oxide nanoparticles in a superparamagnetic form, which are drawn to magnets, but not to each other. This ensures that the particles don’t stick together, according to the ACS statement.
Initially, smart rust was used to remove crude oil from water collected from the Mediterranean Sea. The research team also showed how smart rust could be used to remove nano- and microplastics from lab and river water samples.
Now, the researchers are focusing on hormones released into water bodies. When some of our body hormones are excreted, they enter waterways. These include natural and synthetic estrogens, which studies have shown to affect the metabolism and reproduction of some plants and animals.
The research team is now gearing up to test these particles in real-world water samples and determine the number of times that they can be reused, the ACS statement explains. Currently, the researchers think that the particles should be able to remove estrogens from multiple water samples, which can also significantly reduce the cost of cleaning.