A wonder material made from waste
In February 2020, Clean Earth Technologies (CET) signed an agreement with Flinders University to produce commercial quantities of an environmental wonder material.
Developed by Associate Professor Justin Chalker and his team at Flinders University, this novel polymer is made exclusively from waste materials and is capable of pulling oil from the oceans or mercury from the water supply, while also enabling near complete recapture of the pollutants.
CET, a Singaporean company, has now established a manufacturing facility in South Australia that is capable of producing 1 tonne of the key material per day, and the first shipments have already been delivered to clients.
The polymer is made from sulphur and cooking oil, by-products of the petroleum and food industry that are abundant, affordable, and would otherwise go unused. “There’s something particularly fitting about making an oil or mercury-binding polymer in a single, solvent-free step, in which every atom in the polymer is derived from industrial waste,” Dr Chalker said.
The team has already demonstrated that the buoyant material can be used to extract spilled crude oil from the oceans, or mercury from air, water, and soil. Once saturated it can then be rung out to enable efficient recapture of the contaminants, before being used again and again. With multiple environmental applications, the novel polymer can be used in either a powdered form or packed into a filter, depending on the remediation required.
ANFF-SA’s Tip Enhancing Raman Spectroscopy (TERS) system, which provides non-destructive mapping and imaging, was critical to understanding how the material behaves when absorbing pollutants, and therefore in assessing the various environmental applications of the polymer. “ANFF-SA’s TERS system confirmed the presence of a key structure [repeated S-S bonds] which makes up the backbone of the polymer, and was able to confirm that a thin film of oil remains bound to the polymer after the oil is recovered,” said Dr Chalker. “This answered our fundamental question about how the oil interacts with the polymer.”
As progress continues, additional modifications to the SA manufacturing plant are ongoing to increase the capacity and automation, and the Chalker Lab continues to collaborate with CET as the facility is developed. The team are also working closely with ANFF-SA’s experts to develop new commercial products that use the polymer.