• Tech Tech

Scientists develop breakthrough gel material that could remove one of the most common pollutants — here's how it works

"We wanted to make a material that is more sustainable and can be used repetitively."

"We wanted to make a material that is more sustainable and can be used repetitively."

Photo Credit: iStock

Researchers have developed a revolutionary material that can help eliminate microplastics, one of the most pervasive artificial contaminants in nature, from our waterways. 

Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science have created a sustainable hydrogel — a polymer-based material that can adapt its structure to its environment even after absorbing water — with a "unique intertwined polymer network" that binds the microplastics and breaks them down using UV light, the institute summarized on its website

Hydrogels have chainlike molecules called polymers that are tightly joined like glue and can easily stick to water molecules. When particles adhere to it, the structure remains intact despite holding a lot of water. 

Think of Jello, a perfect example of a hydrogel made with synthetic polymers. As Science News Explores explained, the jiggly treat consists of 90% water but holds its shape because of polymers that cling to the water. 

According to the researchers, their breakthrough hydrogel "consists of three different polymer layers … intertwined together." 

They also incorporated nanoclusters of a "highly efficient copper substitute" material into the hydrogel to help degrade the microplastics using UV light. This powerful combination of polymers and nanoclusters created a hydrogel — which they referred to as pGel@IPN — that could take up and break down plastic particles, as their study published in Nanoscale detailed. 

After testing the material in their lab on polyvinyl chloride and polypropylene — two of the most prevalent microplastics — they found it could eliminate about 95% and 93% of the plastics in near-neutral pH water. 

"We wanted to make a material that is more sustainable and can be used repetitively," said Suryasarathi Bose, lead researcher and a professor at the Department of Materials Engineering. 

He explained that the hydrogel could have a lifespan of "up to five cycles of microplastic removal" without sacrificing its effectiveness. At the end of its life, it can also be upcycled into carbon nanomaterials that can remove heavy metals from contaminated water, contributing to a circular, sustainable economy.  

In the future, the team plans to collaborate with other scientists and industry leaders to scale up their invention and remove microplastic pollution from many waterways. 

Since microplastics have been implicated in numerous human health issues, including cancer and heart disease, it's imperative to keep them out of our drinking water and environment. Microplastics can also sicken or kill marine animals that accidentally ingest them and even affect entire ecosystems. 

Luckily, many brilliant scientists and engineers, such as Bose's team, have been working hard to remove these harmful chemicals from the environment.

Join our free newsletter for weekly updates on the coolest innovations improving our lives and saving our planet.

Cool Divider