The World Health Organization considers mercury to be one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern, and fish and sushi lovers are most at risk. Even exposure to small amounts of mercury can lead to significant health problems and lower IQ in children. However, Australian researchers devised a new material made from industrial waste and orange peels that may be able to detect and absorb mercury in the oceans on a large scale.
Researchers from Flinders University in South Australia made a soft, jelly-like material called sulphur-limonene polysulfide, which changes color as it sucks mercury from the water. Not only could it help tackle ocean pollution, but the material is cheap and made from products that are already being thrown out.
"Mercury contamination plagues many areas of the world, affecting both food and water supplies and creating a serious need for an efficient and cost effective method to trap this mercury," lead researcher Justin Chalker said in a press release. He says, until now, there has been no such method, and that it not only helps solve the problem with mercury pollution but also provides the environmental bonus of putting waste materials to good use.
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The mercury-sucking polymer is usually a dark red color, but it transforms to a vibrant yellow as it comes in contact with mercury and vacuums it in. You can see it in action in the video below:
The polymer is made up of sulfur and limonene (the substance found in orange peels), which Chalker says were chosen for their abundance. About sulfur, he said, "There are literally mountains of it lying, unused, around the globe.”
The team has also done research to make sure that the mercury-binding polymer has no other detrimental side effects on the environment, and the results confirmed it would be safe to commercialize it.
The researchers also believe that the benefits of using the material in toxic waste clean-up won’t be limited to mercury pollution in the ocean — they plan to explore the potential to purify soil and drinking water as well.
With this mercury purification technique, hopefully seafood will slowly but surely become a safer meal for all of the sushi and fish lovers out there. Chalker says the researchers also “hope to inspire other scientists and engineers to develop novel and useful materials that address urgent challenges in sustainability.”