Category Archives: water

Biohybrid cyborgs

Cyborgs are usually thought of as people who’ve been enhanced with some sort of technology, In contemporary real life that technology might be a pacemaker or hip replacement but in science fiction it’s technology such as artificial retinas (for example) that expands the range of visible light for an enhanced human.

Rarely does the topic of a microscopic life form come up in discussion about cyborgs and yet, that’s exactly what an April 3, 2019 Nanowerk spotlight article by Michael Berger describes in relationship to its use in water remediation efforts (Note: links have been removed),

Researchers often use living systems as inspiration for the design and engineering of micro- and nanoscale propulsion systems, actuators, sensors, and robots. …

“Although microrobots have recently proved successful for remediating decontaminated water at the laboratory scale, the major challenge in the field is to scale up these applications to actual environmental settings,” Professor Joseph Wang, Chair of Nanoengineering and Director, Center of Wearable Sensors at the University California San Diego, tells Nanowerk. “In order to do this, we need to overcome the toxicity of their chemical fuels, the short time span of biocompatible magnesium-based micromotors and the small domain operation of externally actuated microrobots.”

In their recent work on self-propelled biohybrid microrobots, Wang and his team were inspired by recent developments of biohybrid cyborgs that integrate self-propelling bacteria with functionalized synthetic nanostructures to transport materials.

“These tiny cyborgs are incredibly efficient for transport materials, but the limitation that we observed is that they do not provide large-scale fluid mixing,” notes Wang. ” We wanted to combine the best properties of both worlds. So, we searched for the best candidate to create a more robust biohybrid for mixing and we decided on using rotifers (Brachionus) as the engine of the cyborg.”

These marine microorganisms, which measure between 100 and 300 micrometers, are amazing creatures as they already possess sensing ability, energetic autonomy, and provide large-scale fluid mixing capability. They are also are very resilient and can survive in very harsh environments and even are one of the few organisms that have survived via asexual reproduction.

“Taking inspiration from the science fiction concept of a cybernetic organism, or cyborg – where an organism has enhanced abilities due to the integration of some artificial component – we developed a self-propelled biohybrid microrobot, that we named rotibot, employing rotifers as their engine,” says Fernando Soto, first author of a paper on this work (Advanced Functional Materials, “Rotibot: Use of Rotifers as Self-Propelling Biohybrid Microcleaners”).

This is the first demonstration of a biohybrid cyborg used for the removal and degradation of pollutants from solution. The technical breakthrough that allowed the team to achieve this task is based on a novel fabrication mechanism based on the selective accumulation of functionalized microbeads in the microorganism’s mouth: The rotifer serves not only as a transport vessel for active material or cargo but also acting as a powerful biological pump, as it creates fluid flows directed towards its mouth

Nanowerk has made this video demonstrating a rotifer available along with a description,

“The rotibot is a rotifer (a marine microorganism) that has plastic microbeads attached to the mouth, which are functionalized with pollutant-degrading enzymes. This video illustrates a free swimming rotibot mixing tracer particles in solution. “

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rotibot: Use of Rotifers as Self‐Propelling Biohybrid Microcleaners by Fernando Soto, Miguel Angel Lopez‐Ramirez, Itthipon Jeerapan, Berta Esteban‐Fernandez de Avila, Rupesh, Kumar Mishra, Xiaolong Lu, Ingrid Chai, Chuanrui Chen, Daniel Kupor. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.201900658 First published: 28 March 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Berger’s April 3, 2019 Nanowerk spotlight article includes some useful images if you are interested in figuring out how these rotibots function.

Desalination waste as a useful resource?

For anyone not familiar with the concept, it’s possible to remove salt from water to make it potable (i.e., drinkable). With growing concerns about water shortages worldwide, turning the ocean into something drinkable is seen as a reasonable solution. One of the problems associated with the solution is waste. As you can see in this post, it’s a big problem.

Illustration depicts the potential of the suggested process. Brine, which could be obtained from the waste stream of reverse osmosis (RO) desalination plants, or from industrial plants or salt mining operations, can be processed to yield useful chemicals such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or hydrochloric acid (HCl). Credit: Illustration courtesy of the researchers [downloaded from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190213124439.htm]

A February 13, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily announced research from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) into research on desalination and waste,

The rapidly growing desalination industry produces water for drinking and for agriculture in the world’s arid coastal regions. But it leaves behind as a waste product a lot of highly concentrated brine, which is usually disposed of by dumping it back into the sea, a process that requires costly pumping systems and that must be managed carefully to prevent damage to marine ecosystems. Now, engineers at MIT say they have found a better way.

In a new study, they show that through a fairly simple process the waste material can be converted into useful chemicals — including ones that can make the desalination process itself more efficient

A February 13, 2019 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in detail,

The approach can be used to produce sodium hydroxide, among other products. Otherwise known as caustic soda, sodium hydroxide can be used to pretreat seawater going into the desalination plant. This changes the acidity of the water, which helps to prevent fouling of the membranes used to filter out the salty water — a major cause of interruptions and failures in typical reverse osmosis desalination plants.

The concept is described today in the journal Nature Catalysis and in two other papers by MIT research scientist Amit Kumar, professor of mechanical engineering John. [sic] H. Lienhard V, and several others. Lienhard is the Jameel Professor of Water and Food and the director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab.

“The desalination industry itself uses quite a lot of it,” Kumar says of sodium hydroxide. “They’re buying it, spending money on it. So if you can make it in situ at the plant, that could be a big advantage.” The amount needed in the plants themselves is far less than the total that could be produced from the brine, so there is also potential for it to be a saleable product.

Sodium hydroxide is not the only product that can be made from the waste brine: Another important chemical used by desalination plants and many other industrial processes is hydrochloric acid, which can also easily be made on site from the waste brine using established chemical processing methods. The chemical can be used for cleaning parts of the desalination plant, but is also widely used in chemical production and as a source of hydrogen.

Currently, the world produces more than 100 billion liters (about 27 billion gallons) a day of water from desalination, which leaves a similar volume of concentrated brine. [emphases mine] Much of that is pumped back out to sea, and current regulations require costly outfall systems to ensure adequate dilution of the salts. Converting the brine can thus be both economically and ecologically beneficial, especially as desalination continues to grow rapidly around the world. “Environmentally safe discharge of brine is manageable with current technology, but it’s much better to recover resources from the brine and reduce the amount of brine released,” Lienhard says.

The method of converting the brine into useful products uses well-known and standard chemical processes, including initial nanofiltration to remove undesirable compounds, followed by one or more electrodialysis stages to produce the desired end product. While the processes being suggested are not new, the researchers have analyzed the potential for production of useful chemicals from brine and proposed a specific combination of products and chemical processes that could be turned into commercial operations to enhance the economic viability of the desalination process, while diminishing its environmental impact.

“This very concentrated brine has to be handled carefully to protect life in the ocean, and it’s a resource waste, and it costs energy to pump it back out to sea,” so turning it into a useful commodity is a win-win, Kumar says. And sodium hydroxide is such a ubiquitous chemical that “every lab at MIT has some,” he says, so finding markets for it should not be difficult.

The researchers have discussed the concept with companies that may be interested in the next step of building a prototype plant to help work out the real-world economics of the process. “One big challenge is cost — both electricity cost and equipment cost,” at this stage, Kumar says.

The team also continues to look at the possibility of extracting other, lower-concentration materials from the brine stream, he says, including various metals and other chemicals, which could make the brine processing an even more economically viable undertaking.

“One aspect that was mentioned … and strongly resonated with me was the proposal for such technologies to support more ‘localized’ or ‘decentralized’ production of these chemicals at the point-of-use,” says Jurg Keller, a professor of water management at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in this work. “This could have some major energy and cost benefits, since the up-concentration and transport of these chemicals often adds more cost and even higher energy demand than the actual production of these at the concentrations that are typically used.”

The research team also included MIT postdoc Katherine Phillips and undergraduate Janny Cai, and Uwe Schroder at the University of Braunschweig, in Germany. The work was supported by Cadagua, a subsidiary of Ferrovial, through the MIT Energy Initiative.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Direct electrosynthesis of sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid from brine streams by Amit Kumar, Katherine R. Phillips, Gregory P. Thiel, Uwe Schröder, & John H. Lienhard V. Nature Catalysis volume 2, pages106–113 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41929-018-0218-y Published 13 February 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Cleaning water with bacteria

There seems to be much interest in bacteria as collaborators as opposed to the old ‘enemy that must be destoyed’ concept. The latest collaborative effort was announced in a January 19,2019 news item on Nanowerk,

More than one in 10 people in the world lack basic drinking water access, and by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas, which is why access to clean water is one of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges. Engineers at Washington University in St. Louis [WUSTL] have designed a novel membrane technology that purifies water while preventing biofouling, or buildup of bacteria and other harmful microorganisms that reduce the flow of water.

And they used bacteria to build such filtering membranes.

A January 17, 2019 WUSTL news release by Beth Miller, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Srikanth Singamaneni, professor of mechanical engineering & materials science, and Young-Shin Jun, professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering, and their teams blended their expertise to develop an ultrafiltration membrane using graphene oxide and bacterial nanocellulose that they found to be highly efficient, long-lasting and environmentally friendly. If their technique were to be scaled up to a large size, it could benefit many developing countries where clean water is scarce.


Biofouling accounts for nearly half of all membrane fouling and is highly challenging to eradicate completely. Singamaneni and Jun have been tackling this challenge together for nearly five years. They previously developed other membranes using gold nanostars, but wanted to design one that used less expensive materials.

Their new membrane begins with feeding Gluconacetobacter hansenii bacteria a sugary substance so that they form cellulose nanofibers when in water. The team then incorporated graphene oxide (GO) flakes into the bacterial nanocellulose while it was growing, essentially trapping GO in the membrane to make it stable and durable.

After GO is incorporated, the membrane is treated with base solution to kill Gluconacetobacter. During this process, the oxygen groups of GO are eliminated, making it reduced GO.  When the team shone sunlight onto the membrane, the reduced GO flakes immediately generated heat, which is dissipated into the surrounding water and bacteria nanocellulose.

Ironically, the membrane created from bacteria also can kill bacteria.
“If you want to purify water with microorganisms in it, the reduced graphene oxide in the membrane can absorb the sunlight, heat the membrane and kill the bacteria,” Singamaneni said.

Singamaneni and Jun and their team exposed the membrane to E. coli bacteria, then shone light on the membrane’s surface. After being irradiated with light for just 3 minutes, the E. coli bacteria died. The team determined that the membrane quickly heated to above the 70 degrees Celsius required to deteriorate the cell walls of E. coli bacteria.

While the bacteria are killed, the researchers had a pristine membrane with a high quality of nanocellulose fibers that was able to filter water twice as fast as commercially available ultrafiltration membranes under a high operating pressure.

When they did the same experiment on a membrane made from bacterial nanocellulose without the reduced GO, the E. coli bacteria stayed alive.

“This is like 3-D printing with microorganisms,” Jun said. “We can add whatever we like to the bacteria nanocellulose during its growth. We looked at it under different pH conditions similar to what we encounter in the environment, and these membranes are much more stable compared to membranes prepared by vacuum filtration or spin-coating of graphene oxide.”

While Singamaneni and Jun acknowledge that implementing this process in conventional reverse osmosis systems is taxing, they propose a spiral-wound module system, similar to a roll of towels. It could be equipped with LEDs or a type of nanogenerator that harnesses mechanical energy from the fluid flow to produce light and heat, which would reduce the overall cost.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Photothermally Active Reduced Graphene Oxide/Bacterial Nanocellulose Composites as Biofouling-Resistant Ultrafiltration Membranes by Qisheng Jiang, Deoukchen Ghim, Sisi Cao, Sirimuvva Tadepalli, Keng-Ku Liu, Hyuna Kwon, Jingyi Luan, Yujia Min, Young-Shin Jun, and Srikanth Singamaneni. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2019, 53 (1), pp 412–421 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02772 Publication Date (Web): September 14, print Jan. 2, 2019.

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Eco-friendly nanocomposite catalyst and ultrasound to remove pollutants from water

The best part of this story is that they’re using biochar from rice hulls to create the nanocomposite catalyst. A July 19, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily reveals a few details about the research without discussing the rice hulls,

The research team of Dr. Jae-woo Choi and Dr. Kyung-won Jung of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology’s (KIST, president: Byung-gwon Lee) Water Cycle Research Center announced that it has developed a wastewater treatment process that uses a common agricultural byproduct to effectively remove pollutants and environmental hormones, which are known to be endocrine disruptors.

A July 19, 2019 Korea National Research Council of Science & Technology news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The sewage and wastewater that are inevitably produced at any industrial worksite often contain large quantities of pollutants and environmental hormones (endocrine disruptors). Because environmental hormones do not break down easily, they can have a significant negative effect on not only the environment but also the human body. To prevent this, a means of removing environmental hormones is required.

The performance of the catalyst that is currently being used to process sewage and wastewater drops significantly with time. Because high efficiency is difficult to achieve given the conditions, the biggest disadvantage of the existing process is the high cost involved. Furthermore, the research done thus far has mostly focused on the development of single-substance catalysts and the enhancement of their performance. Little research has been done on the development of eco-friendly nanocomposite catalysts that are capable of removing environmental hormones from sewage and wastewater.

The KIST research team, led by Dr. Jae-woo Choi and Dr. Kyung-won Jung, utilized biochar,** which is eco-friendly and made from agricultural byproducts, to develop a wastewater treatment process that effectively removes pollutants and environmental hormones. The team used rice hulls [emphasis mine] which are discarded during rice harvesting, to create a biochar that is both eco-friendly and economical. The surface of the biochar was coated with nano-sized manganese dioxide to create a nanocomposite. The high efficiency and low cost of the biochar-nanocomposite catalyst is based on the combination of the advantages of the biochar and manganese dioxide.

**Biochar: a term that collectively refers to substances that can be created through the thermal decomposition of diverse types of biomass or wood under oxygen-limited condition

The KIST team used the hydrothermal method, which is a type of mineral synthesis that uses high heat and pressure, when synthesizing the nanocomposite in order to create a catalyst that is highly active, easily replicable, and stable. It was confirmed that giving the catalyst a three-dimensional stratified structure resulted in the high effectiveness of the advanced oxidation process (AOP), due to the large surface area created.

When used under the same conditions in which the existing catalyst can remove only 80 percent of Bisphenol A (BPA), an environmental hormone, the catalyst developed by the KIST team removed over 95 percent in less than one hour. In particular, when combined with ultrasound (20kHz), it was confirmed that all traces of BPA were completely removed in less than 20 minutes. Even after many repeated tests, the BPA removal rate remained consistently at around 93 percent.

Dr. Kyung-won Jung of KIST’s Water Cycle Research Center said, “The catalyst developed through this study makes use of a common agricultural byproduct. Therefore, we expect that additional research on alternative substances will lead to the development of catalysts derived from various types of organic waste biomass.” Dr. Jae-woo Choi, also of KIST’s Water Cycle Research Center, said, “We have high hopes that future studies aimed at achieving process optimization and increasing removal rates will allow for the development an environmental hormone removal system that is both eco-friendly and low-cost.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Ultrasound-assisted heterogeneous Fenton-like process for bisphenol A removal at neutral pH using hierarchically structured manganese dioxide/biochar nanocomposites as catalysts by Kyung-Won Jung, Seon Yong Lee, Young Jae Lee, Jae-Woo Choi. Ultrasonics Sonochemistry
Volume 57, October 2019, Pages 22-28 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ultsonch.2019.04.039 Available online 29 April 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sticky at any temperature and other American Chemical Society News

Just when I thought I’d seen all the carbon nanotube abbreviations; I find two new ones in my first news bit about adhesion. Later, I’m including a second news bit that has to do with the upcoming American Chemical Society (ACS) Meeting in San Diego, California.

Sticky carbon nanotubes (CNTs)

Scientists have developed an adhesive that retains its stickiness in extreme temperatures according to a July 10, 2019 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

In very hot or cold environments, conventional tape can lose its stickiness and leave behind an annoying residue. But while most people can avoid keeping taped items in a hot car or freezer, those living in extreme environments such as deserts and the Antarctic often can’t avoid such conditions.

Now, researchers reporting in ACS’ journal Nano Letters (“Continuous, Ultra-lightweight, and Multipurpose Super-aligned Carbon Nanotube Tapes Viable over a Wide Range of Temperatures”) say they have developed a new nanomaterial tape that can function over a wide temperature range.

In previous work, researchers have explored using nanomaterials, such as vertically aligned multi-walled carbon nanotubes (VA-MWNTs), to make better adhesive tapes. Although VA-MWNTs are stronger than conventional tapes at both high and low temperatures, the materials are relatively thick, and large amounts can’t be made cost-effectively.

These are my first vertically aligned multi-walled carbon nanotubes (VA-MWNTs) and superaligned carbon nanotubes (SACNTs). I was a little surprised that VA-MWNTs didn’t include the C since these are carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and there are other types of nanotubes. So, I searched and found that inclusion of the letter ‘C’ for carbon seems to be discretionary. Moving on.

A July 10, 2019 ACS press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

… Kai Liu, Xide Li, Wenhui Duan, Kaili Jiang and coworkers wondered if they could develop a new type of tape composed of superaligned carbon nanotube (SACNT) films. As their name suggests, SACNTs are nanotubes that are precisely aligned parallel to each other, capable of forming ultrathin but strong yarns or films.

To make their tape, the researchers pulled a film from the interior of an array of SACNTs — similar to pulling a strip of tape from a roll. The resulting double-sided tape could adhere to surfaces through van der Waals interactions, which are weak electric forces generated between two atoms or molecules that are close together. The ultrathin, ultra-lightweight and flexible tape outperformed conventional adhesives, at temperatures ranging from -321 F to 1,832 F. Researchers could remove the tape by peeling it off, soaking it in acetone or burning it, with no noticeable residues. The tape adhered to many different materials such as metals, nonmetals, plastics and ceramics, but it stuck more strongly to smooth than rough surfaces, similar to regular tape. The SACNT tape can be made cost-effectively in large amounts. In addition to performing well in extreme environments, the new tape might be useful for electronic components that heat up during use, the researchers say.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Continuous, Ultra-lightweight, and Multipurpose Super-aligned Carbon Nanotube Tapes Viable over a Wide Range of Temperatures by Xiang Jin, Hengxin Tan, Zipeng Wu, Jiecun Liang, Wentao Miao, Chao-Sheng Lian, Jiangtao Wang, Kai Liu, Haoming Wei, Chen Feng, Peng Liu, Yang Wei, Qunqing Li, Jiaping Wang, Liang Liu, Xide Li, Shoushan Fan, Wenhui Duan, Kaili Jiang. Nano Lett.2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.9b01629 Publication Date:June 16, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting in San Diego, Aug. 25 to 29, 2019: an invite to journalists

A July 18, 2019 ACS press release (received via email) announced their upcoming meeting and it included an invitation to journalists. (ACS has two meetings per year, one on the East Coast and the other on the West, roughly speaking).

Materials science and nanotechnology topics at the upcoming 2019 American Chemical Society national meeting in San Diego

WASHINGTON, July 18, 2019 — Journalists who register for the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’) Fall 2019 National Meeting & Exposition in San Diego will have access to more than 9,500 presentations on the meeting’s theme, “Chemistry & Water,” will include  nanotechnology and materials science topics. The meeting, one of the largest scientific conferences of the year, will be held Aug. 25 to 29 [2019] in San Diego.

Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold, Ph.D., of the California Institute of Technology and Thomas Markland, DPhil, of Stanford University will deliver the two Kavli Foundation lectures on Aug. 26 [2019].

The more than 9,500 presentations will include presentations on nanotechnology and materials science, such as: 

Colloids and nanomaterials for water purification
Nanozymes for bioanalysis and beyond
The latest in wearable and implantable sensors
Nanoscale and molecular assemblies: designing matter to control energy transport
Colloidal quantum dots for solar and other emerging technologies
Nanoscience of bourbon
Targeted delivery of nanomedicines 
Advances in nanocellulose research for engineered functionality
Water sustainability through nanotechnology

Looking for something else? Search the meeting’s abstracts

ACS will operate a press center with press conferences, a news media workroom fully staffed to assist in arranging interviews and free Wi-Fi, computers and refreshments.

Embargoed copies of press releases and a press conference schedule will be available in mid-August.  Reporters planning to cover the meeting from their home bases will have access to the press conferences on YouTube at http://bit.ly/acs2019sandiego.

ACS considers requests for press credentials and complimentary registration to national meetings from reporters (staff and freelance) and public information officers at government, non-profit and educational institutions. See the website for details.

Here’s who does and doesn’t quality for a free press registration (from the ACS complimentary registration webpage),

Press Registration Requirements

The ACS provides complimentary registration to national meetings to reporters (staff and freelancers) and public information officers from government, non-profit and educational institutions. Marketing and public relations professionals, lobbyists and scientists do not qualify as press and must register via the main meeting registration page. Journal managing editors, book commissioning editors, acquisitions editors, publishers and those who do not produce news for a publication or institution also do not qualify. We reserve the right to refuse press credentials for any reason.

No bloggers, eh? it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a press registration process that doesn’t mention bloggers at all.

Desalination and toxic brine

Have you ever wondered about the possible effects and impact of desalinating large amounts of ocean water? It seems that some United Nations University (UNU) researchers have asked and are beginning to answer that question. The following table illustrates the rise in desalination plants and processes,


Today 15,906 operational desalination plants are found in 177 countries. Almost half of the global desalination capacity is located in the Middle East and North Africa region (48 percent), with Saudi Arabia (15.5 percent), the United Arab Emirates (10.1 percent) and Kuwait (3.7 percent) being both the major producers in the region and globally. Credit: UNU-INWEH [downloaded from http://inweh.unu.edu/un-warns-of-rising-levels-of-toxic-brine-as-desalination-plants-meet-growing-water-needs/]

A January 14, 2019 news item on phys.org highlights the study on desalination from the UNU,

The fast-rising number of desalination plants worldwide—now almost 16,000, with capacity concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa—quench a growing thirst for freshwater but create a salty dilemma as well: how to deal with all the chemical-laden leftover brine.

In a UN-backed paper, experts estimate the freshwater output capacity of desalination plants at 95 million cubic meters per day—equal to almost half the average flow over Niagara Falls.
For every litre of freshwater output, however, desalination plants produce on average 1.5 litres of brine (though values vary dramatically, depending on the feedwater salinity and desalination technology used, and local conditions). Globally, plants now discharge 142 million cubic meters of hypersaline brine every day (a 50% increase on previous assessments).

That’s enough in a year (51.8 billion cubic meters) to cover Florida under 30.5 cm (1 foot) of brine.

The authors, from UN University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health [at McMaster University], Wageningen University, The Netherlands, and the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, Republic of Korea, analyzed a newly-updated dataset—the most complete ever compiled—to revise the world’s badly outdated statistics on desalination plants.

And they call for improved brine management strategies to meet a fast-growing challenge, noting predictions of a dramatic rise in the number of desalination plants, and hence the volume of brine produced, worldwide.

A January 14, 2017 UNU press release, which originated the news item, details the findings,

The paper found that 55% of global brine is produced in just four countries: Saudi Arabia (22%), UAE (20.2%), Kuwait (6.6%) and Qatar (5.8%). Middle Eastern plants, which largely operate using seawater and thermal desalination technologies, typically produce four times as much brine per cubic meter of clean water as plants where river water membrane processes dominate, such as in the US.

The paper says brine disposal methods are largely dictated by geography but traditionally include direct discharge into oceans, surface water or sewers, deep well injection and brine evaporation ponds.

Desalination plants near the ocean (almost 80% of brine is produced within 10km of a coastline) most often discharge untreated waste brine directly back into the marine environment.

The authors cite major risks to ocean life and marine ecosystems posed by brine greatly raising the salinity of the receiving seawater, and by polluting the oceans with toxic chemicals used as anti-scalants and anti-foulants in the desalination process (copper and chlorine are of major concern).

“Brine underflows deplete dissolved oxygen in the receiving waters,” says lead author Edward Jones, who worked at UNU-INWEH, and is now at Wageningen University, The Netherlands. “High salinity and reduced dissolved oxygen levels can have profound impacts on benthic organisms, which can translate into ecological effects observable throughout the food chain.”

Meanwhile, the paper highlights economic opportunities to use brine in aquaculture, to irrigate salt tolerant species, to generate electricity, and by recovering the salt and metals contained in brine — including magnesium, gypsum, sodium chloride, calcium, potassium, chlorine, bromine and lithium.

With better technology, a large number of metals and salts in desalination plant effluent could be mined. These include sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, bromine, boron, strontium, lithium, rubidium and uranium, all used by industry, in products, and in agriculture. The needed technologies are immature, however; recovery of these resources is economically uncompetitive today.

“There is a need to translate such research and convert an environmental problem into an economic opportunity,” says author Dr. Manzoor Qadir, Assistant Director of UNU-INWEH. “This is particularly important in countries producing large volumes of brine with relatively low efficiencies, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar.”

“Using saline drainage water offers potential commercial, social and environmental gains. Reject brine has been used for aquaculture, with increases in fish biomass of 300% achieved. It has also been successfully used to cultivate the dietary supplement Spirulina, and to irrigate forage shrubs and crops (although this latter use can cause progressive land salinization).”

“Around 1.5 to 2 billion people currently live in areas of physical water scarcity, where water resources are insufficient to meet water demands, at least during part of the year. Around half a billion people experience water scarcity year round,” says Dr. Vladimir Smakhtin, a co-author of the paper and the Director of UNU-INWEH, whose institute is actively pursuing research related to a variety of unconventional water sources.

“There is an urgent need to make desalination technologies more affordable and extend them to low-income and lower-middle income countries. At the same time, though, we have to address potentially severe downsides of desalination — the harm of brine and chemical pollution to the marine environment and human health.”

“The good news is that efforts have been made in recent years and, with continuing technology refinement and improving economic affordability, we see a positive and promising outlook.”

¹The authors use the term “brine” to refer to all concentrate discharged from desalination plants, as the vast majority of concentrate (>95%) originates from seawater and highly brackish groundwater sources.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The state of desalination and brine production: A global outlook by Edward Jones, Manzoor Qadir, Michelle T.H.van Vliet, Vladimir Smakhtin, Seong-mu Kang. Science of The Total Environment Volume 657, 20 March 2019, Pages 1343-1356 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.12.076 Available online 7 December 2018

Surprisingly (to me anyway), this paper is behind a paywall.

Jiggly jell-o as a new hydrogen fuel catalyst

Jello [uploaded from https://www.organicauthority.com/eco-chic-table/new-jell-o-mold-jiggle-chic-holidays]

I’m quite intrigued by this ‘jell-o’ story. It’s hard to believe a childhood dessert might prove to have an application as a catalyst for producing hydrogen fuel. From a December 14, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

A cheap and effective new catalyst developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, can generate hydrogen fuel from water just as efficiently as platinum, currently the best — but also most expensive — water-splitting catalyst out there.

The catalyst, which is composed of nanometer-thin sheets of metal carbide, is manufactured using a self-assembly process that relies on a surprising ingredient: gelatin, the material that gives Jell-O its jiggle.

Two-dimensional metal carbides spark a reaction that splits water into oxygen and valuable hydrogen gas. Berkeley researchers have discovered an easy new recipe for cooking up these nanometer-thin sheets that is nearly as simple as making Jell-O from a box. (Xining Zang graphic, copyright Wiley)

A December 13, 2018 University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) news release by Kara Manke (also on EurekAlert but published on Dec. 14, 2018), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

“Platinum is expensive, so it would be desirable to find other alternative materials to replace it,” said senior author Liwei Lin, professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley. “We are actually using something similar to the Jell-O that you can eat as the foundation, and mixing it with some of the abundant earth elements to create an inexpensive new material for important catalytic reactions.”

The work appears in the Dec. 13 [2018] print edition of the journal Advanced Materials.

A zap of electricity can break apart the strong bonds that tie water molecules together, creating oxygen and hydrogen gas, the latter of which is an extremely valuable source of energy for powering hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen gas can also be used to help store energy from renewable yet intermittent energy sources like solar and wind power, which produce excess electricity when the sun shines or when the wind blows, but which go dormant on rainy or calm days.

A black and white image of metal carbide under high magnification.

When magnified, the two-dimensional metal carbides resemble sheets of cell[o]phane. (Xining Zang photo, copyright Wiley)

But simply sticking an electrode in a glass of water is an extremely inefficient method of generating hydrogen gas. For the past 20 years, scientists have been searching for catalysts that can speed up this reaction, making it practical for large-scale use.

“The traditional way of using water gas to generate hydrogen still dominates in industry. However, this method produces carbon dioxide as byproduct,” said first author Xining Zang, who conducted the research as a graduate student in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley. “Electrocatalytic hydrogen generation is growing in the past decade, following the global demand to lower emissions. Developing a highly efficient and low-cost catalyst for electrohydrolysis will bring profound technical, economical and societal benefit.”

To create the catalyst, the researchers followed a recipe nearly as simple as making Jell-O from a box. They mixed gelatin and a metal ion — either molybdenum, tungsten or cobalt — with water, and then let the mixture dry.

“We believe that as gelatin dries, it self-assembles layer by layer,” Lin said. “The metal ion is carried by the gelatin, so when the gelatin self-assembles, your metal ion is also arranged into these flat layers, and these flat sheets are what give Jell-O its characteristic mirror-like surface.”

Heating the mixture to 600 degrees Celsius triggers the metal ion to react with the carbon atoms in the gelatin, forming large, nanometer-thin sheets of metal carbide. The unreacted gelatin burns away.

The researchers tested the efficiency of the catalysts by placing them in water and running an electric current through them. When stacked up against each other, molybdenum carbide split water the most efficiently, followed by tungsten carbide and then cobalt carbide, which didn’t form thin layers as well as the other two. Mixing molybdenum ions with a small amount of cobalt boosted the performance even more.

“It is possible that other forms of carbide may provide even better performance,” Lin said.

On the left, an illustration of blue spheres, representing gelatin molecules, arranged in a lattice shape. On the right, an illustration of thin sheets of metal carbide.

Molecules in gelatin naturally self-assemble in flat sheets, carrying the metal ions with them (left). Heating the mixture to 600 degrees Celsius burns off the gelatin, leaving nanometer-thin sheets of metal carbide. (Xining Zang illustration, copyright Wiley)

The two-dimensional shape of the catalyst is one of the reasons why it is so successful. That is because the water has to be in contact with the surface of the catalyst in order to do its job, and the large surface area of the sheets mean that the metal carbides are extremely efficient for their weight.

Because the recipe is so simple, it could easily be scaled up to produce large quantities of the catalyst, the researchers say.

“We found that the performance is very close to the best catalyst made of platinum and carbon, which is the gold standard in this area,” Lin said. “This means that we can replace the very expensive platinum with our material, which is made in a very scalable manufacturing process.”

Co-authors on the study are Lujie Yang, Buxuan Li and Minsong Wei of UC Berkeley, J. Nathan Hohman and Chenhui Zhu of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab; Wenshu Chen and Jiajun Gu of Shanghai Jiao Tong University; Xiaolong Zou and Jiaming Liang of the Shenzhen Institute; and Mohan Sanghasadasa of the U.S. Army RDECOM AMRDEC.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Self‐Assembly of Large‐Area 2D Polycrystalline Transition Metal Carbides for Hydrogen Electrocatalysis by Xining Zang, Wenshu Chen, Xiaolong Zou, J. Nathan Hohman, Lujie Yang
Buxuan Li, Minsong Wei, Chenhui Zhu, Jiaming Liang, Mohan Sanghadasa, Jiajun Gu, Liwei Lin. Advanced Materials Volume30, Issue 50 December 13, 2018 1805188 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201805188 First published [online]: 09 October 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

In six hours billions of plastic nanoparticles accumulate in marine organisms

For the sake of comparison, I wish they’d thought to include an image of a giant scallop that hadn’t been used in the research (I have an ‘unplastic’ giant scallop image at the end of this posting),

Caption: These are some of the scallops used as part of the current research. Credit: University of Plymouth

But, they did do this,

A scan showing nanoplastic particles accumulated within the scallop’s gills (GI), kidney (K), gonad (GO), intestine (I), hepatopancreas (HP) and muscle (M). Credit: University of Plymouth [downloaded from https://phys.org/news/2018-12-billions-nanoplastics-accumulate-marine-hours.html]

A December 3, 2018 news item on phys.org announces the research,

A ground-breaking study has shown it takes a matter of hours for billions of minute plastic nanoparticles to become embedded throughout the major organs of a marine organism.

The research, led by the University of Plymouth, examined the uptake of nanoparticles by a commercially important mollusc, the great scallop (Pecten maximus).

After six hours exposure in the laboratory, billions of particles measuring 250nm (around 0.00025mm) had accumulated within the scallop’s intestines.

However, considerably more even smaller particles measuring 20nm (0.00002mm) had become dispersed throughout the body including the kidney, gill, muscle and other organs.

A December 3, 2018 University of Plymouth press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, adds more detail,

The study is the first to quantify the uptake of nanoparticles at predicted environmentally relevant conditions, with previous research having been conducted at far higher concentrations than scientists believe are found in our oceans.

Dr Maya Al Sid Cheikh, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth, led the study. She said: “For this experiment, we needed to develop an entirely novel scientific approach. We made nanoparticles of plastic in our laboratories and incorporated a label so that we could trace the particles in the body of the scallop at environmentally relevant concentrations. The results of the study show for the first time that nanoparticles can be rapidly taken up by a marine organism, and that in just a few hours they become distributed across most of the major organs.”

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, added: “This is a ground breaking study, in terms of both the scientific approach and the findings. We only exposed the scallops to nanoparticles for a few hours and, despite them being transferred to clean conditions, traces were still present several weeks later. Understanding the dynamics of nanoparticle uptake and release, as well as their distribution in body tissues, is essential if we are to understand any potential effects on organisms. A key next step will be to use this approach to guide research investigating any potential effects of nanoparticles and in particular to consider the consequences of longer term exposures.”

Accepted for publication in the Environmental Science and Technology journal, the study also involved scientists from the Charles River Laboratories in Elphinstone, Scotland; the Institute Maurice la Montagne in Canada; and Heriot-Watt University.

It was conducted as part of RealRiskNano, a £1.1million project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Led by Heriot-Watt and Plymouth, it is exploring the effects which microscopic plastic particles can have on the marine environment.

In this study, the scallops were exposed to quantities of carbon-radiolabeled nanopolystyrene and after six hours, autoradiography was used to show the number of particles present in organs and tissue.

It was also used to demonstrate that the 20nm particles were no longer detectable after 14 days, whereas 250nm particles took 48 days to disappear.

Ted Henry, Professor of Environmental Toxicology at Heriot-Watt University, said: “Understanding whether plastic particles are absorbed across biological membranes and accumulate within internal organs is critical for assessing the risk these particles pose to both organism and human health. The novel use of radiolabelled plastic particles pioneered in Plymouth provides the most compelling evidence to date on the level of absorption of plastic particles in a marine organism.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Uptake, Whole-Body Distribution, and Depuration of Nanoplastics by the Scallop Pecten maximus at Environmentally Realistic Concentrations by Maya Al-Sid-Cheikh, Steve J. Rowland, Karen Stevenson, Claude Rouleau, Theodore B. Henry, and Richard C. Thompson. Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b05266 Publication Date (Web): November 20, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

‘Unplastic giant scallop’

The sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) has over 100 blue eyes along the edge of its mantle, with which it senses light intensity. This mollusk has the ability to scoot away from potential danger by flapping the two parts of its shell, like a swimming castenet. Credit: Dann Blackwood, USGS – http://www.sanctuaries.nos.noaa.gov/pgallery/pgstellwagen/living/living_17.html Public Domain

Stunning, isn’t it?

Altered virus spins gold into beads

They’re not calling this synthetic biology but I’ m pretty sure that altering a virus gene so the virus can spin gold (Rumpelstiltskin anyone?) qualifies. From an August 24, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

The race is on to find manufacturing techniques capable of arranging molecular and nanoscale objects with precision.

Engineers at the University of California, Riverside, have altered a virus to arrange gold atoms into spheroids measuring a few nanometers in diameter. The finding could make production of some electronic components cheaper, easier, and faster.

An August 23, 2018 University of California at Riverside (UCR) news release (also on EurekAlett) by Holly Ober, which originated the news item, adds detail,

“Nature has been assembling complex, highly organized nanostructures for millennia with precision and specificity far superior to the most advanced technological approaches,” said Elaine Haberer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in UCR’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering and senior author of the paper describing the breakthrough. “By understanding and harnessing these capabilities, this extraordinary nanoscale precision can be used to tailor and build highly advanced materials with previously unattainable performance.”

Viruses exist in a multitude of shapes and contain a wide range of receptors that bind to molecules. Genetically modifying the receptors to bind to ions of metals used in electronics causes these ions to “stick” to the virus, creating an object of the same size and shape. This procedure has been used to produce nanostructures used in battery electrodes, supercapacitors, sensors, biomedical tools, photocatalytic materials, and photovoltaics.

The virus’ natural shape has limited the range of possible metal shapes. Most viruses can change volume under different scenarios, but resist the dramatic alterations to their basic architecture that would permit other forms.

The M13 bacteriophage, however, is more flexible. Bacteriophages are a type of virus that infects bacteria, in this case, gram-negative bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, which is ubiquitous in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. M13 bacteriophages genetically modified to bind with gold are usually used to form long, golden nanowires.

Studies of the infection process of the M13 bacteriophage have shown the virus can be converted to a spheroid upon interaction with water and chloroform. Yet, until now, the M13 spheroid has been completely unexplored as a nanomaterial template.

Haberer’s group added a gold ion solution to M13 spheroids, creating gold nanobeads that are spiky and hollow.

“The novelty of our work lies in the optimization and demonstration of a viral template, which overcomes the geometric constraints associated with most other viruses,” Haberer said. “We used a simple conversion process to make the M13 virus synthesize inorganic spherical nanoshells tens of nanometers in diameter, as well as nanowires nearly 1 micron in length.”

The researchers are using the gold nanobeads to remove pollutants from wastewater through enhanced photocatalytic behavior.

The work enhances the utility of the M13 bacteriophage as a scaffold for nanomaterial synthesis. The researchers believe the M13 bacteriophage template transformation scheme described in the paper can be extended to related bacteriophages.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

M13 bacteriophage spheroids as scaffolds for directed synthesis of spiky gold nanostructures by Tam-Triet Ngo-Duc, Joshua M. Plank, Gongde Chen, Reed E. S. Harrison, Dimitrios Morikis, Haizhou Liu, and Elaine D. Haberer. Nanoscale, 2018,10, 13055-13063 DOI: 10.1039/C8NR03229G First published on 25 Jun 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

For another example of genetic engineering and synthetic biology, see my July 18, 2018 posting: Genetic engineering: an eggplant in Bangladesh and a synthetic biology grant at Concordia University (Canada).

For anyone unfamiliar with the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale about spinning straw into gold, see its Wikipedida entry.

Bristly hybrid materials

Caption: [Image 1] A carbon fiber covered with a spiky forest of NiCoHC nanowires. Credit: All images reproduced from reference 1 under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License© 2018 KAUST

It makes me think of small, cuddly things like cats and dogs but it’s not. From an August 7, 2018 King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST; Saudi Arabia) news release (also published on August 12, 2018 on EurekAlert),

By combining multiple nanomaterials into a single structure, scientists can create hybrid materials that incorporate the best properties of each component and outperform any single substance. A controlled method for making triple-layered hollow nanostructures has now been developed at KAUST. The hybrid structures consist of a conductive organic core sandwiched between layers of electrocatalytically active metals: their potential uses range from better battery electrodes to renewable fuel production.

Although several methods exist to create two-layer materials, making three-layered structures has proven much more difficult, says Peng Wang from the Water Desalination and Reuse Center who co-led the current research with Professor Yu Han, member of the Advanced Membranes and Porous Materials Center at KAUST. The researchers developed a new, dual-template approach, explains Sifei Zhuo, a postdoctoral member of Wang’s team.

The researchers grew their hybrid nanomaterial directly on carbon paper–a mat of electrically conductive carbon fibers. They first produced a bristling forest of nickel cobalt hydroxyl carbonate (NiCoHC) nanowires onto the surface of each carbon fiber (image 1). Each tiny inorganic bristle was coated with an organic layer called hydrogen substituted graphdiyne (HsGDY) (image 2 [not included here]).

Next was the key dual-template step. When the team added a chemical mixture that reacts with the inner NiCoHC, the HsGDY acted as a partial barrier. Some nickel and cobalt ions from the inner layer diffused outward, where they reacted with thiomolybdate from the surrounding solution to form the outer nickel-, cobalt-co-doped MoS2 (Ni,Co-MoS2) layer. Meanwhile, some sulfur ions from the added chemicals diffused inwards to react with the remaining nickel and cobalt. The resulting substance (image 3 [not included here]) had the structure Co9S8, Ni3S2@HsGDY@Ni,Co-MoS2, in which the conductive organic HsGDY layer is sandwiched between two inorganic layers (image 4 [not included here]).

The triple layer material showed good performance at electrocatalytically breaking up water molecules to generate hydrogen, a potential renewable fuel. The researchers also created other triple-layer materials using the dual-template approach

“These triple-layered nanostructures hold great potential in energy conversion and storage,” says Zhuo. “We believe it could be extended to serve as a promising electrode in many electrochemical applications, such as in supercapacitors and sodium-/lithium-ion batteries, and for use in water desalination.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Dual-template engineering of triple-layered nanoarray electrode of metal chalcogenides sandwiched with hydrogen-substituted graphdiyne by Sifei Zhuo, Yusuf Shi, Lingmei Liu, Renyuan Li, Le Shi, Dalaver H. Anjum, Yu Han, & Peng Wang. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 3132 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-05474-0 Published 07 August 2018

This paper is open access.