A new polymer, derived from a cheap and readily available mixture of canola cooking oil and sulfur, has the potential of cleansing the environment of mercury pollution.
Research, conducted at Flinders University in Australia and published in this month’s Chemistry journal in Europe, demonstrated that the new canola oil polymer can trap the most dangerous and common types of mercury pollution – mercury metal, mercury vapour, and highly toxic organo-mercury compounds which harm both aquatic and terrestrial systems.
The mercury-binding polymer is now licensed for sale to Kerafast a U.S.-based reagent company.
Mercury is a highly toxic element that can occur naturally or be introduced as a contaminant to the environment through human activity. Most exposure is from eating fish, amalgam based dental fillings, or exposure at work.
One of the most documented incidents of a neurological syndrome of mercury poisoning was in Minamata City in Japan in 1956. It was caused by the discharge of methylmercury in the waste water from the Chisso Corp. chemical factory. The toxic chemical accumulated in the fish and shellfish in Minamata Bay, which was eaten by the local population. This resulted in deaths people and the birth of infants with physical defects for years. There were more than 2,200 victims, about 1,700 of which died.
Decades after the Minamata poisoning, mercury, and mercury-containing materials are still used intentionally at many chloralkali plants and in artisanal gold mining. The largest source of mercury emissions globally is due to artisanal gold mining. Mercury-based fungicides are still used in certain agricultural sectors.
“With the Minamata Convention on Mercury coming into force around the world this year, this discovery is an important advance in protecting the environment and human health,” said Dr. Justin Chalker, senior lecturer in synthetic chemistry at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia.
Chalker and fellow researchers from around the world have combined second-hand cooking oil and sulfur – a common, low-cost byproduct from petroleum production – to produce a new kind of polymer to use in remediation of soil, water, and even the air.
After absorbing mercury pollution, the novel rubber-like polymer changes colour to indicate the job is done. More of the affordable polymer mixture can then be placed in the area to continue to process.
“We can use this material to protect the environment by capturing toxic mercury pollution – a pernicious problem around the world, causing brain damage and loss of IQ points in unborn children,” said Chalker. “At the same time, every atom of the mercury-binding material can be derived from industrial byproducts, so this is also an exciting advance in recycling and re-purposing waste.”
The material is now being tested in field trials at mining sites and areas where mercury-based fungicides are used.
This research was funded by The Australian Government National Environmental Science Programme Emerging Priorities Funding and The Australian Research Council.