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Orange peel waste helps clean up mercury pollution

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Researchers in the lab
Max Worthington (left) and Dr. Justin Chalker (right) examining a sample of the sulfur-limonene polysulfide (Photo credit: Ashton Claridge, Flinders University)

An inexpensive, non-toxic polymer that draws mercury pollution out of water and soil has been developed by Dr. Justin Chalker with Flinders University in Australia. It is made from the industrial waste products sulphur and limonene.

Dr. Chalker says the new polymer is cheap to produce due to the global abundance of waste sulphur and limonene. That makes it affordable for use in large-scale environmental clean-ups, to coat water pipes carrying domestic and waste water, and even in removing mercury from large bodies of water.

This has significant implications for human health as mercury exposure – whether through the skin or through ingestion, is proven to damage the central nervous system. It is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children.

“Mercury contamination plagues many areas of the world, affecting both food and water supplies and creating a serious need for an efficient and cost effective method to trap it,” says Dr. Chalker.

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“More than 70 million tonnes of waste sulphur are produced by the petroleum industry and 70 thousand tons of limonene is produced each year, from orange peels. The chemical merger of these two industrial byproducts proved remarkably easy. “The real surprise came when we studied its behaviour in metal binding.

sulfur-limonene polysulfide
A block of the sulfur-limonene polysulfide: a polymer synthesised entirely from industrial byproducts.

Because the polymer has a high sulphur content, we anticipated it should have a high affinity for metals that bond to sulphur. This was indeed the case” says Dr. Chalker. “We found it could remove more than 50% of the mercury from water after only a single treatment.”

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