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A group of French researchers has developed a nanomaterial that works like a sponge for some water pollutants and allows to measure them easily and quickly.
Heavy metals coming from industrial waste, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, nickel, and zinc are some of the most dreaded pollutants in water, and EU laws strictly limits their concentration in the water we drink. Measuring these pollutants is commonplace but cumbersome. A sample of water has to be collected and taken to a laboratory for analysis, and results typically require days or weeks.
A group of researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau, near Paris, have developed a tiny film that could speed up the process dramatically. The "nano-factor" is within the film itself: millions of nanopores that trap metals like a sponge, making them immediately available for analysis. Their new system is portable, provides immediate results, and therefore may change the way we monitor water quality.
François Plais is an engineer with industry experience at the Ecole Polytechnique and a member of the team that developed the sensor.
How does your system work?
At the beginning we were developing a membrane to filter water, not to analyse it. Then we realized that we could change the structure of the membrane to work as a trap for metal ions. The two ideas are similar and opposite: a filtering membrane is a tiny sheet of polycarbonate with holes of a diameter of 30-40 nanometers, called nanopores, that let the water flow and filter out impurities. Our sensor membrane, instead, is made with another polymer called PVDF, and with nanopores that trap water and any metal ions that come with it. Basically, it works like a sponge. The system also works as a sensor, because metals ions change the electrical properties of the membrane. If we apply two electrodes at the membrane, we can measure the concentration of metals with a standard electrochemical test, which is relatively straightforward.
What are the advantages compared to the existing technologies?
With our system you don't need to bring a sample to the laboratory, because you use it on site. At the same time, our data show that the sensitivity and accuracy are comparable to the current laboratory standards.
Can you mention some possible applications ?
Our system may be ideal to assess the quality of drinking water from lakes, reservoirs or rivers, for example, or to monitor pollution from industrial waste. By providing immediate results, it could really change the way we monitor water quality, as far as heavy metals are concerned.
What are you going to do next?
We still need to validate our laboratory results in a real-world setting. With the help of Pronano, we have found a partner that will allow us to do that, and we are now working on this new phase of the project.
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