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PNNL develops mercury-absorbing pollution solution


Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a novel material that can remove mercury and other toxic substances from coal-burning power-plant waste water.

Mercury pollution is widely recognized as a growing risk to both the environment and public health. It is estimated that coal-burning power plants contribute about 48 tons of mercury to the United States environment each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in eight women have mercury concentrations in their body’s that exceed safety limits.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reconsidering proposed rules on the release of mercury from coal-burning power plant effluents and may impose greater restrictions. Mercury found in liquid effluents comes from water-based processes the facilities use to scrub, capture and collect the toxic material.

PNNL’s synthetic material features a nanoporous ceramic substrate with a specifically tailored pore size and a very high surface area. The surface area of one teaspoon of this substance is equivalent to that of a football field. "This substance has proven to be an effective and voracious tool for absorbing mercury," said Shas Mattigod, lead chemist and PNNL project manager. Pore sizes can be tailored for specific tasks.

The material relies on technology previously developed at PNNL– self-assembled monolayers on mesoporous support, or SAMMS. SAMMS integrates a nanoporous silica-based substrate with an innovative method for attaching monolayers, or single layers of densely packed molecules, that can be designed to attract mercury or other toxic substances.

In recent tests at PNNL, a customized version of SAMMS with an affinity for mercury, referred to as thiol-SAMMS, was developed. According to Mattigod, test results revealed mercury-absorbing capabilities that surpassed the developers’ expectations. After three successive treatments, 99.9 percent of the mercury in the simulated waste water was captured reducing levels from 145.8 parts per million to 0.04 parts per million. This is below the EPA’s discharge limit of 0.2 parts per million.

The mercury-laden SAMMS also passed Washington State’s Dangerous Waste regulatory limit of 0.2 parts per million allowing for safe disposal of the test solution directly to the sewer. Tests have shown that the mercury-laden SAMMS also passed EPA requirements for land disposal. "We expect this technology will result in huge savings to users who are faced with costly disposal of mercury in the waste stream."

Mattigod adds that SAMMS technology can be easily adapted to target other toxins such as lead, chromium and radionuclides.

Business and public inquiries on this and other PNNL research and technologies should be directed to 1-888-375-PNNL or

PNNL ( is a DOE Office of Science laboratory that solves complex problems in energy, national security, the environment and life sciences by advancing the understanding of physics, chemistry, biology and computation. PNNL employs 3,800, has a $600 million annual budget, and has been managed by Ohio-based Battelle since the lab’s inception in 1965.

Note: Shas V. Mattigod will present his findings at the 227th American Chemical Society national meeting in Anaheim, CA, on Wednesday, March 31, at 5:00 a.m. EST, during the symposium entitled "Mercury Measurement, Transformations, Control, and Related Issues in Power Systems" in the Gold Key II room at the Marriott.

Geoff Harvey | EurekAlert!
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