Microplastics are contaminating our water; IISc has now found a solution to the problem

The research team designed a sustainable hydrogel with a unique polymer network capable of removing and degrading microplastics effectively.

BySouth First Desk

Published Apr 12, 2024 | 3:36 PMUpdatedApr 12, 2024 | 3:36 PM

Microplastics in water. (Getty Images)

Microplastic contamination, a pervasive threat to both human health and the environment, has found a formidable opponent in a novel hydrogel developed by researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

These tiny plastic particles, ubiquitous in water sources worldwide, pose significant risks to ecosystems and human well-being. They are also an environmental hazard; found even in remote areas like polar ice caps and deep ocean trenches, they endanger aquatic and terrestrial lifeforms, as per a press statement released by the institute.

The sustainable solution

Scientists have previously tried using filtering membranes to remove microplastics. However, the membranes can become clogged with these tiny particles, rendering them unsustainable, the statement noted.

Led by Professor Suryasarathi Bose from the Department of Materials Engineering at IISc, the research team designed a sustainable hydrogel with a unique polymer network capable of removing and degrading microplastics effectively. The polymer network can bind the contaminants and degrade them using UV light irradiation.

“The novel hydrogel developed by the team consists of three different polymer layers — chitosan, polyvinyl alcohol, and polyaniline — intertwined together, making an Interpenetrating Polymer Network (IPN) architecture. The team infused this matrix with nanoclusters of a material called copper substitute polyoxometalate (Cu-POM). These nanoclusters are catalysts that can use UV light to degrade the microplastics,” the institute explained.

It added that the combination of the polymers and nanoclusters resulted in a strong hydrogel with the ability to adsorb and degrade large amounts of microplastics.

Also Read: Residential buildings are a source of microplastic pollution, says IIT-Madras

The experiment

Most microplastics are a product of incomplete breakdown of household plastics and fibres. To mimic this in the lab, the team crushed food container lids and other daily-use plastic products to create two of the most common microplastics existing in nature: polyvinyl chloride and polypropylene.

“Along with treatment or removal of microplastics, another major problem is detection. Because these are very small particles, you cannot see them with the naked eye,” explained Soumi Dutta, the first author of the study published in Nanoscale and a SERB National Post-doctoral fellow at IISc.

To solve this problem, the researchers added a fluorescent dye to the microplastics to track how much was being adsorbed and degraded by the hydrogel under different conditions. “We checked the removal of microplastics at different pH levels of water, different temperatures, and different concentrations of microplastics,” explains Dutta, as quoted in the statement.

The hydrogel was found to be highly efficient — it could remove about 95 percent and 93 percent of the two different types of microplastics in water at near-neutral pH (∼6.5). The team also carried out several experiments to test the durability and strength of the material. They found that the combination of the three polymers made it stable under various temperatures.

Professor Bose further pointed out that once the hydrogel has outlived its use, it can be repurposed into carbon nanomaterials that can remove heavy metals like hexavalent chromium from polluted water.

The researchers plan to work with collaborators to develop a device that can be deployed on a large scale to help clean up microplastics from various water sources.

Also Read: Exposure to daily-use plastics may impact pregnancy: ICMR-NIN study

(Edited by Kamna Revanoor)