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Coral Reefs and Synthetics: New Material, Clean Possibilities?

Jul 23, 2015 03:47 PM EDT
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If we're going to create materials that mimic humans and goats and all other entitities that we attempt to clone, why not ocean-clarifying coral reefs?

Or at least, say scientists from Anhui Jianzhu University in China, a new material they've created that imitates coral could help remove toxic heavy metals from the ocean, including mercury, as they recently wrote in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science. The new material, they think, could provide inspiration for other ways to remove pollutants.

When toxins like mercury, lead and arsenic are released into the water from manufacturing and industrial processes, plants and animals absorb it, and it rises up the food chain. WHO says, for instance, up to 17 in every thousand children living in certain subsistence fishing populations showed cognitive results from eating fish that contained mercury. 

Also, even at low concentrations, small amounts of heavy metals can kill corals, because they collect or adsorb the metals so efficiently. Inspired by that fact, Dr. Xianbiao Wang and his colleagues created coral-like nanoplates from aluminum oxide. While this material has previously been used to remove pollutants, a different structure was needed to perform well. In this case, the nanoplates curl into a coral-like structure, said a release.

"Adsorption is an easy way to remove pollutants from water, so developing new products that can do this is a big challenge in environmental remediation," said Dr. Wang, in the release.

When the researchers tested the coral-like nanoplates, they found that they removed around 2.5 times more mercury from water than the traditional aluminum oxide nanoparticles, the release confirmed.

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @TreesWhales

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