Revolutionary Powder Magnet May Mop Up Microplastics

3 mins

Australian researchers have found a novel way to rapidly remove hazardous microplastics from water using magnets.

A revolutionary method of removing tiny microplastics from water using magnetism has been discovered by Australian scientists.

Researchers at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) say their breakthrough process – which involves a magnetic powder sucking out microplastics from water – can locate particles 1,000 times smaller than those currently detectable.

Lead researcher Professor Nicky Eshtiagh says the powder could be used by water treatment plants to remove the contaminants.

Currently, most water treatment plants can only remove plastic fragments that are 5 millimetres or larger meaning smaller pieces end up in oceans and are ingested by people and marine animals.

The oceans are full of minuscule microplastics that are entering our food system

But the novel magnetic powder developed by the team could be the solution.

When the powder is added to water containing microplastics, it captures even the tiniest pieces with close to 100 percent success. On passage through a magnetic field the powder – which includes iron – is attracted to the magnet, bringing the plastic along with it .

‘This is a big win for the environment and the circular economy,’ said ’ Nicky Eshtiaghi, lead researcher and professor from RMIT’s School of Environmental and Chemical Engineering.

Microplastics Game Changer

‘Microplastics smaller than five millimetres, which can take up to 450 years to degrade, are not detectable and removable through conventional treatment systems, resulting in millions of tonnes being released into the sea every year.

‘Our powder additive can remove microplastics that are 1,000 times smaller than those that are currently detectable by existing wastewater treatment plants,’ Eshtiaghi said in a statement

The process can be completed in a hour – rather than the several days which plastic removal treatment currently lasts.

scientists holding up vials with microplastics removing powder
Dr Nasir Mahmood, PhD candidate Muhammad Haris and Professor Nicky Eshtiaghi (left to right) with a sample of water with microplastics and a vial of clean water following its treatment with their innovation. Credit: RMIT University

Better yet, the powder can be re-used multiple times as when it is rinsed in ethanol the plastic is released allowing the powder to be used up to six times at least.

The research, published in Chemical Engineering Journal said the team found that up to 12.7 million tons of microplastics enter the oceans each year.

Just how damaging microplastics are to those who ingest them is still debated but it is likely that the minuscule flecks that are entering our food system through soil and water are bad for us.

Many microplastics form when larger items such plastic bottles or fishing nets break down in the ocean however a lot currently enters the sea from beauty products and even washing clothes. It’s estimated that each wash cycle could release more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres into the environment.

‘This is not only harmful for aquatic life, but also has significant negative impacts on human health,’ said Eshtiaghi

‘We are looking for industrial collaborators to take our invention to the next steps, where we will be looking at its application in wastewater treatment plants.’

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