Pelagia-Irene (Perena) Gouma, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the State University of New York (SUNY) Stony Brook, created a novel “nanogrid,” a large net consisting of metal grids made of a copper tungsten oxide, that, when activated by sunlight, can break down oil from a spill, leaving only biodegradable compounds behind.
“We have made a new catalyst that can break down hydrocarbons in water, and it does not contaminate the water,” says Gouma, who also directs SUNY’s Center for Nanomaterials and Sensor Development. “It utilizes the whole solar spectrum and can work in water for a long time, which no existing photocatalyst can do now. Ours is a unique technology. When you shine light on these grids, they begin to work and can be used over and over again.”
“Something like this would work fine for any oil spill,” Gouma adds. “Any ship can carry them, so if they have even a small amount of spill, they can take care of it.”
Initially, the grids, which resemble non-woven mats of miniaturized ceramic fishing nets, probably will be used for oil spills, although they potentially could prove valuable in other applications, such as cleaning contaminated water that may (or may not) be produced by the process of hydraulic fracturing.
Because they work well both in water and air, they also could be a chemical-free, possibly even water-free, method of cleaning clothes in the future. “The dry cleaning process that we now use involves a lot of contaminants that have to be remediated and treated, such as benzene,” she says. “This could be a dry cleaning substitute that would be more environmentally friendly than current dry cleaning approaches.”
The photocatalytic nanogrids invented in her lab are made by a unique self-assembly process that occurs “during the nanomanufacturing on non-woven nanofibrous mats deposited on metal meshes,” according to Gouma. “Upon heating, metal clusters diffuse inside polymeric nanofibers, then turn into single crystal nanowires, then oxidize to form metal oxide-ceramic nanoparticles that are interconnected, like links in a chain,” she says.
These form an unusual and “robust third architecture that allows for the highest surface area, providing maximum exposure to the contaminant to be remediated, while the nanoscale particle sizes enable fast catalytic action,” she adds. “The result is a self-supported water remediation targeted photocatalytic technology that has no precedent.”
She and her team are in the process of creating a startup business—they have two patents pending on the process—with the hope of scaling up production and carrying out pilot studies.
“We want to demonstrate feasibility in the real world, and then produce them in large quantities,” she says. “We have proof of principle that our technology can be useful. Our technique works in the lab. We now need to make sure that it works in the field.”
In September, we reported on a technology to clean up oil spills using two types of oil-eating bacteria.
Original article by Marlene Cimons.