New spheres trick, trap and terminate water contaminant

Rice University scientists have developed something akin to the Venus’ flytrap of particles for water remediation.

Rice University researchers have enhanced micron-sized titanium dioxide particles to trap and destroy BPA, a water contaminant with health implications. Cyclodextrin molecules on the surface trap BPA, which is then degraded by reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced by the light-activated particles. Illustration by Danning Zhang

Micron-sized spheres created in the lab of Rice environmental engineer Pedro Alvarez are built to catch and destroy bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical used to make plastics.

The research is detailed in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.

BPA is commonly used to coat the insides of food cans, bottle tops and water supply lines, and was once a component of baby bottles. While BPA that seeps into food and drink is considered safe in low doses, prolonged exposure is suspected of affecting the health of children and contributing to high blood pressure.

The good news is that reactive oxygen species (ROS) – in this case, hydroxyl radicals – are bad news for BPA. Inexpensive titanium dioxide releases ROS when triggered by ultraviolet light. But because oxidating molecules fade quickly, BPA has to be close enough to attack.

Cyclodextrin is a benign sugar-based molecule often used in food and drugs. It has a two-faced structure, with a hydrophobic (water-avoiding) cavity and a hydrophilic (water-attracting) outer surface. BPA is also hydrophobic and naturally attracted to the cavity. Once trapped, ROS produced by the spheres degrades BPA into harmless chemicals.

In the lab, the researchers determined that 200 milligrams of the spheres per liter of contaminated water degraded 90 percent of BPA in an hour, a process that would take more than twice as long with unenhanced titanium dioxide.

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