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New Material Filters Radioactive Drinking Water Contaminates

Water pouring into a glass (Greg Riegler/Flickr)Researchers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh have developed a material from natural sources that can remove radioactive contaminates from drinking water. The material, made from a combination of forest byproducts and crustacean shells, works without electric power and can also remove heavy metals from drinking water, or salt from sea water.

A team led by natural resources professor Joel Pawlak developed the material by combining hemicellulose, a byproduct of plant materials, and chitosan, crustacean shells that have been crushed into a powder. Hemicelluloses are present in the cell walls of most terrestrial plants. Chitosan is now used primarily as a plant growth enhancer, and as a substance that boosts the ability of plants to defend against fungal infections.

The hemicellulose/chitosan material forms a solid foam, absorbs water, and then extracts contaminates such as radioactive iodide, from the water itself. “The material that we’ve developed binds iodide in water and traps it, which can then be properly disposed of without risk to humans or the environment,” says Pawlak.

Pawlak notes that the problems faced in Japan with radioactive iodide contamination shows the need for the new material when faced with nuclear accidents. “Because it [radioactive iodide ] is chemically identical to non-radioactive iodide, the human body cannot distinguish it,” says Pawlak, “which is what allows it to accumulate in the thyroid and eventually lead to cancer.”

The hemicellulose/chitosan material works on its own, without an external power source. Pawlak and fellow researchers found that it can also remove heavy metals — such as arsenic — from water or salt from sea water to make clean drinking water.

The foam has so far been coated on wood fibers, and used like a sponge when immersed in water. For smaller-scale applications, the foam could be used in something like a tea bag, or for larger-scale applications, poured through it like a filter. The university says research into larger-scale use for the material is now underway.

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Photo: Greg Riegler/Flickr

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