Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Nanoscale Iron Could Help Cleanse the Environment

04.09.2003


The ultrafine particles will flow underground and destroy toxic compounds in place

An ultrafine, "nanoscale" powder made from iron, one of the most abundant metals on Earth, is turning out to be a remarkably effective tool for cleaning up contaminated soil and groundwater-a trillion-dollar problem that encompasses more than 1000 still-untreated Superfund sites in the United States, some 150,000 underground storage tank releases, and a staggering number of landfills, abandoned mines, and industrial sites.

The case for nanoscale iron is laid out in the September 3 issue of the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, where Lehigh University environmental engineer Wei-xian Zhang reviews his eight years of pioneering work with the material. Much of Zhang’s research has been funded by the National Science Foundation as a part of the federal government’s 16-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). This issue of the Journal is dedicated to nanoparticles in the environment and it is prefaced by Mihail Roco, NNI’s coordinator and NSF’s Senior Advisor on Nanotechnology, with a perspective on "Broader Societal Issues of Nanotechnology".



Iron’s cleansing power stems from the simple fact that it rusts, or oxidizes, explains Zhang. Ordinarily, of course, the only result is the familiar patina of brick-red iron oxide. But when metallic iron oxidizes in the presence of contaminants such as trichloroethene, carbon tetrachloride, dioxins, or PCBs, he says, these organic molecules get caught up in the reactions and broken down into simple carbon compounds that are far less toxic.

Likewise with dangerous heavy metals such as lead, nickel, mercury, or even uranium, says Zhang: The oxidizing iron will reduce these metals to an insoluble form that tends to stay locked in the soil, rather than spreading through the food chain. And, iron itself has no known toxic effect-just as well, considering the element is abundant in rocks, soil, water, and just about everything else on the planet. Indeed, says Zhang, for all those reasons, many companies now use a relatively coarse form of metallic iron powder to purify their industrial wastes before releasing them into the environment.

Unfortunately, says Zhang, these industrial reactors aren’t much help with the pollutants that have already seeped into the soil and water. That’s the beauty of the nanoscale iron particles. Not only are they some 10 to 1000 times more reactive than conventional iron powders, because their smaller size collectively gives them a much larger surface area, but they can be suspended in a slurry and pumped straight into the heart of a contaminated site like an industrial-scale hypodermic injection. Once there, the particles will flow along with the groundwater to work their decontamination magic in place-a vastly cheaper proposition than digging out the soil and treating it shovelful by shovelful, which is how the worst of the Superfund sites are typically handled today.

In that sense, says Zhang, nanoscale iron is similar to in situ biological treatments that use specialized bacteria to metabolize the toxins. But unlike bacteria, he says, the iron particles aren’t affected by soil acidity, temperature, or nutrient levels. Moreover, because the nanoparticles are between 1 and 100 nanometers in diameter, which is about ten to a thousand times smaller than most bacteria, the tiny iron crystals can actually slip in between soil particles and avoid getting trapped.

Laboratory and field tests have confirmed that treatment with nanoscale iron particles can drastically lower contaminant levels around the injection well within a day or two, and will all but eliminate them within a few weeks-reducing them so far that the formerly polluted site will now meet federal groundwater quality standards. The tests also show that the nanoscale iron will remain active in the soil for 6 to 8 weeks, says Zhang, or until what’s left of it dissolves in the groundwater. And after that, of course, it will be essentially undetectable against the much higher background of naturally occurring iron.

Finally, says Zhang, the cost of the nanoscale iron treatments is not nearly as big a barrier as it was in 1995, when he and his colleagues first developed a chemical route for making the particles. Then the nanoscale iron cost about $500 a kilogram; now, it’s more like $40 to $50 per kilogram. (Decontaminating an area of about 100 square meters using a single injection well requires 11.2 kilograms.)

Zhang is currently forming a company to mass-produce the nanoscale iron particles. And in the meantime, he and his colleagues are consulting with multiple clients. "It used to be just the feds-agencies like the Navy and so on," he says. "But now, we’re working with big pharmaceutical firms, semiconductor manufacturers, and many other companies, all of which are interested in cleaning up sites."

After nearly a decade of research, he adds, "we’re entering a phase of exponential growth. There are thousands and thousands of contaminated sites out there. And hopefully, this will be a cost-effective way to deal with many of them."

Mitchell Waldrop | NSF
Further information:
http://www.nsf.gov
http://www.wkap.nl/journals/nano
http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/03/pr0394.htm

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Upcycling 'fast fashion' to reduce waste and pollution
03.04.2017 | American Chemical Society

nachricht Litter is present throughout the world’s oceans: 1,220 species affected
27.03.2017 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Fighting drug resistant tuberculosis – InfectoGnostics meets MYCO-NET² partners in Peru

28.04.2017 | Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Wireless power can drive tiny electronic devices in the GI tract

28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering

Ice cave in Transylvania yields window into region's past

28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

Nose2Brain – Better Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

28.04.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>