Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Nano-velcro clasps heavy metal molecules in its grips

10.09.2012
Researchers develop nano-strips for inexpensive testing of mercury levels in our lakes and oceans with unprecedented sensitivity

Mercury, when dumped in lakes and rivers, accumulates in fish, and often ends up on our plates. A Swiss-American team of researchers led by Francesco Stellacci at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Bartosz Grzybowski at Northwestern University has devised a simple, inexpensive system based on nanoparticles, a kind of nano-velcro, to detect and trap this toxic pollutant as well as others.

The particles are covered with tiny hairs that can grab onto toxic heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium. This technology makes it possible to easily and inexpensively test for these substances in water and, more importantly, in the fish that we eat. Their new method can measure methyl mercury, the most common form of mercury pollution, at unprecedentedly small attomolar concentrations. The system is outlined in an article appearing September 9, 2012 in the journal Nature Materials.

Methyl mercury, toxic and difficult to monitor

Researchers are particularly interested in detecting mercury. Its most common form, methyl mercury, accumulates as one goes up the food chain, reaching its highest levels in large predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish. In the US, France and Canada, public health authorities advise pregnant women to limit fish consumption because mercury can compromise nervous system development in the developing fetus.

"The problem is that current monitoring techniques are too expensive and complex," explains Constellium Chair holder at EPFL and co-author Francesco Stellacci. "We periodically test levels of mercury in drinking water, and if those results are good, we make the assumption that levels are acceptable in between those testing periods." But industrial discharge fluctuates.

A simple, inexpensive new technology

The technology developed by the Swiss-American team is simple to use. A strip of glass covered with a film of "hairy" nanoparticles is dipped into the water. When an ion – a positively charged particle, such as a methyl mercury or cadmium ion – gets in between two hairs, the hairs close up, trapping the pollutant.

A voltage-measuring device reveals the result; the more ions there are trapped in the nano-velcro, the more electricity it will conduct. So to calculate the number of trapped particles, all one needs to do is measure the voltage across the nanostructure.

By varying the length of the nano-hairs, the scientists can target a particular kind of pollutant. "The procedure is empirical," explains Stellacci. Methyl mercury, fortunately, has properties that make it extremely easy to trap without accidentally trapping other substances at the same time; thus the results are very reliable.

The interesting aspect of this approach is that the 'reading' glass strip could costs less than 10 dollars, while the measurement device will cost only a few hundreds of dollars. The analysis can be done in the field, so the results are immediately available. "With a conventional method, you have to send samples to the laboratory, and the analysis equipment costs several million dollars," notes Stellacci.

Convincing tests in Lake Michigan and Florida

The researchers tested the system in Lake Michigan, near Chicago. Despite the high level of industry in the region, mercury levels were extremely low. "The goal was to compare our measurements to FDA measurements done using conventional methods," explains Stellacci. "Our results fell within an acceptable range."

A mosquito fish from the Everglades in Florida was also tested. This species is not very high on the food chain and thus does not accumulate high levels of mercury in its tissues. "We measured tissue that had been dissolved in acid. The goal was to see if we could detect even minuscule quantities." says Bartosz Grzybowski, Burgess Professor of Chemistry and Director of Non-Equilibrium Energy Research Center at Northwestern University. The United States Geological Survey reported near-identical results after analyzing the same sample.

From quantum to real applications

"I think it is quite incredible," Grzybowski adds, "how the complex principles of quantum tunneling underlying our device translate into such an accurate and practically useful device. It is also notable that our system - through some relatively simple chemical modifications - can be readily adapted to detect other toxic species" Researchers have already demonstrated the detection of cadmium with a very high femtomolar sensitivity.

"With this technology, it will be possible to conduct tests on a much larger scale in the field, or even in fish before they are put on the market," says lead author Eun Seon Cho. This is a necessary public health measure, given the toxic nature of methyl mercury and the extremely complex manner in which it spreads in the environment and accumulates in living tissues.

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL): nanoparticles development

Northwestern University: sensing device conception and implementation – development of quantum mechanical models University of Michigan: modeling the trapping of ions

Funding for this research came from ENI, via the ENI-MIT Alliance; the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency via a grant to MIT and U Michigan; the US Department of Energy via a Nonequilibrium Energy Research Center grant to Northwestern and U Michigan.

Francesco Stellacci | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.epfl.ch

More articles from Materials Sciences:

nachricht New biomaterial could replace plastic laminates, greatly reduce pollution
21.09.2017 | Penn State

nachricht Stopping problem ice -- by cracking it
21.09.2017 | Norwegian University of Science and Technology

All articles from Materials Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: The pyrenoid is a carbon-fixing liquid droplet

Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.

A warming planet

Im Focus: Highly precise wiring in the Cerebral Cortex

Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.

The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

Im Focus: Ultrafast snapshots of relaxing electrons in solids

Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!

When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...

Im Focus: Quantum Sensors Decipher Magnetic Ordering in a New Semiconducting Material

For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.

Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Penn first in world to treat patient with new radiation technology

22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering

Calculating quietness

22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Hope to discover sure signs of life on Mars? New research says look for the element vanadium

22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>