Editorial Feature

How Nanotechnology is Leading the Way in Pollution Control

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Scientists at Oxford University have developed a new process based on nanotechnology to simplify and reduce the cost of testing water for chemical pollution and toxicity levels.

Across the EU, including the UK, some common chemicals, such as mercury, nickel, zinc, cadmium, lead, nitrate, phosphates, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, have degraded water quality at levels that are harmful to health and the environment (European Environment Agency, 2018).

Chemical pollution is understood to be one of the heavy contributors to water pollution, affecting the already limited water supply. The WHO states that approximately 785 million people lack a basic drinking water service worldwide (The World Health Organization, 2019). The improper sanitation service and inefficient wastewater treatment services need immediate attention.

The technology developed by Oxford University shows a promising approach to help protect human health and the environment against chemical pollution. As the spin-out company of the University, Nanolyse Technologies takes the lead to proceed to the next level of development.

Chemical Pollution

The fossil fuels burned by vehicles and industries and the pesticides and fertilizers that contain nitrates and phosphates are the primary cause of chemical pollution. Many toxic chemicals from households and industries leak into the groundwater and mix into lakes or rivers, posing short-term and long-term impacts on human health and the environment.

Emissions from vehicles produce excessive levels of NO2, and the overuse of fertilizers and burning of coal heavily produces sulfur dioxide (SCIENCING, 2017). As the polluted water contains a mixture of different toxic chemicals, the treatment requires state-of-the-art technology to detect them. The newly developed process provides bioavailability-based accurate techniques to distinguish highly toxic ions from less toxic ones in a single step (NTSE, 2021). 

This hampers effective and streamlined pollution control when what we need are bioavailability-based environmental regulations which restrict the types of toxic metal pollution most likely to be absorbed in the body. Therefore, Nanolyse has now developed and patented a bioavailability-based testing technology for monitoring heavy metals, which takes us a step closer to enabling on-the-spot, field testing for water toxicity in real time on-site.

Dr Imad Ahmed, Founder and Chief Executive of Nanolyse

Wastewater Treatment Technology

Wastewater treatment technologies treat secondary water before being reused in other divisions or safely disposed of to avoid a heavy burden on the environment. These processes can be categorized into three main types:

  • Mechanical treatment - this uses natural processes within a constructed environment. The technology utilizes a combination of physical, biological, and chemical processes by using a series of mechanical components, such as tanks, along with pumps, blowers, screens and grinders.
  • Aquatic treatment - suitable in treating ponds or lakes that have sludge deposits with aerobic and anaerobic layers
  • Terrestrial treatment - includes slow-rate overland flow, slow-rate subsurface infiltration, and rapid infiltration methods, usually suitable for providing water for groundwater recharge, reforestation, agriculture, and livestock pasturage (OAS, n.d.).  

The current options for wastewater treatment are high in cost, complex, less efficient, and time-consuming.

Pollution Control Solutions

Wastewater treatment is a popular process in controlling pollutants from wastewater through a physical, chemical, or biological process, although the efficiency has to be compromised with the cost and process time. However, before adopting different options for pollution control, it is crucial to understand the origin of the problem. For example, with 25% of human-induced CO2 emissions being absorbed by oceans, air pollution directly and indirectly impacts water degradation (Science on a Sphere, n.d.). In this case, preventing air pollution is a valid option and the urgent need to stop its contribution to water pollution.

Another major problem of pollution control is the mixture of pollutants that require expensive tailor-fitted treatment for different chemicals and compounds. Nanolyse Technologies' analytical methods for pollution control come with a fitted sensor device and works by selecting and capturing different chemicals and compounds present in water. The prospect of this method will be revolutionary in terms of cost and usability of water analysis.

Nanotechnology Solution

For the last two decades, nanotechnology, defined by the particle size 1-100 nm, has provided prospective solutions to the problems in many fields.

Nanotechnology helps develop better techniques for pollution control on a molecular level that can separate specific elements and molecules from a mixture of atoms and molecules.

A nanofiber catalyst made of manganese oxide is used to speed up chemical reactions and remove volatile organic compounds from industrial smokestacks (UnderstandingNano, 2007).

The University of Queensland experimented with another popular nanomaterial, carbon nanotubes (CNT), to trap greenhouse gas emissions caused by coal mining and power generation (The University of Queensland, 2007). CNT traps gases up to a hundred times faster than other methods, allowing promising integration into the large-scale industry.

The deionization method of using nano-sized fibers as electrodes is considered a cheaper and energy-efficient option with excellent performance (Wang, et al., 2015). Inserting nanomaterials into underground water sources is cost-effective and more straightforward than pumping water for treatment (Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, 2009).

The technology offered by Nanolyse Technologies will eliminate the need to transport samples to a laboratory for analysis using complex machines and highly qualified operators.

With new funding from the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the prototype will offer portable, cost-efficient, and effective miniaturized sensor devices capable of analyzing a wide range of chemical species and toxicity accurately for many applications. 

References and Further Reading

Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. (2009). Turning to Nanotechnology for Pollution Control: Applications of Nanoparticles. [Online] Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science: https://sites.dartmouth.edu/dujs/2009/02/22/turning-to-nanotechnology-for-pollution-control-applications-of-nanoparticles (Accessed on 20 April, 2021)

European Environment Agency. (2018). Chemicals in European waters.

NTSE. (2021). In the Press: Nanolyse Technology Featured in Water & Wastewater Treatment Magazine. [Online] Nanolyse Technologies: https://nanolyse.com/featured/in-the-press/in-the-press-nanolyse-technology-featured-in-water-wastewater-treatment-magazine/ (Accessed on 20 April, 2021)

OAS. (n.d.). Wastewater treatment technologies. [Online] OAS: https://www.oas.org/dsd/publications/unit/oea59e/ch25.htm (Accessed on 20 April, 2021)

Science on a Sphere. (n.d.). Ocean-Atmosphere CO2 Exchange. [Online] Science on a Sphere. https://sos.noaa.gov/datasets/ocean-atmosphere-co2-exchange/ (Accessed on 20 April, 2021)

SCIENCING. (2017). Define Chemical Pollution. [Online] SCIENCING: https://sciencing.com/prevent-land-pollution-23063.html (Accessed on 20 April, 2021)

The University of Queensland. (2007). New technology to reduce large-scale emissions. [Online] The University of Queensland: https://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2007/09/new-technology-reduce-large-scale-emissions (Accessed on 20 April, 2021)

The World Health Organization. (2019). Drinking-water. [Online] The World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water (Accessed on 20 April, 2021)

UnderstandingNano. (2007). Air Pollution and Nanotechnology. [Online] UnderstandingNano: http://www.understandingnano.com/air.html (Accessed on 20 April, 2021)

Wang, Y., El-Deen, A. G., Li, P., Oh, B. H., Guo, Z., Khin, M. M., & Vikhe, Y. S. (2015). High-Performance Capacitive Deionization Disinfection of Water with Graphene Oxide-graft-Quaternized Chitosan Nanohybrid Electrode Coating. ACS Nano. doi:10.1021/acsnano.5b03763

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Parva Chhantyal

Written by

Parva Chhantyal

After graduating from The University of Manchester with a Master's degree in Chemical Engineering with Energy and Environment in 2013, Parva carried out a PhD in Nanotechnology at the Leibniz University Hannover in Germany. Her work experience and PhD specialized in understanding the optical properties of Nano-materials. Since completing her PhD in 2017, she is working at Steinbeis R-Tech as a Project Manager.

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