Accidental orange peel discovery could save lives from mercury poisoning
Australian researchers have accidentally discovered a way to remove mercury from water using a material made from industrial waste and orange peel. Developers Max Worthington and Justin Chalker, from South Australia’s Flinders University, said until now there had been no such method.
It’s a huge step for the pair, with mercury being a dangerous pollutant that can damage food and water supplies, affect the human nervous system and was especially poisonous for children.
Synthetic chemist Dr Chalker said the best thing about the material was that it was incredibly cheap and relied on products that were already being discarded.
The affordability of the material meant it could be used for large-scale environmental clean-ups, to coat water pipes carrying domestic and waste water, and even in removing mercury from large bodies of water.
“Mercury contamination plagues many areas of the world, affecting both food and water supplies and creating a serious need for an efficient and cost-effective method to trap this mercury,” Dr Chalker said.
“We ended up settling on sulphur because it’s produced in 70 million tonnes per year by the petroleum industry as a by-product, so there are not very many uses for it, and limonene is produced in 70,000 tonnes per year and so it’s relatively cheap,” Dr Chalker said.
The plastic-like substance they created is made entirely from sulphur and limonene, industrial waste products that are widely available but unused around the world.
“We take sulphur, which is a by-product of the petroleum industry, and we take limonene, which is the main component of orange oil, so is produced in large quantities by the citrus industry, and we’re able to react them together to form a type of soft red rubber, and what this material does is that it can grab mercury out of the water,” Dr Chalker said.
He said they conducted toxicity studies to make sure that the polymer itself was not harmful to the environment.
“That gives us hope that we’ll be able to commercialise and actually use this in the environment,” Dr Chalker said.