UWaterloo researchers trap nanoplastics in activated carbon

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epoxy resin stock image
Epoxy is widely used in composites, adhesives, coatings, and electronics due to its “strong mechanical properties combined with thermal, chemical and electrical resistance,” the study notes. Photo Credit: Zack, stock.adobe.com

Using a process called thermal decomposition, University of Waterloo researchers say they have converted epoxy into activated carbon to effectively remove 94% of nanoplastics from wastewater. 

A team of researchers led by Waterloo chemical engineering professor, Tizazu Mekonnen, who specializes in polymer engineering, says they physically trapped the nanoplastics through adsorption within the porous structure of cured epoxy waste, which generated activated carbon.  

“Rationally designed plastics not only can be part of the solution to reduce climate change but can have a positive impact in economic development and create jobs,” Mekonnen said in a statement from UWaterloo. “This technology has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the plastics industry.” 

Epoxy is widely used in composites, adhesives, coatings, and electronics due to its “strong mechanical properties combined with thermal, chemical and electrical resistance,” the study notes. 

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Among the activating agents used during the one-stage heating process were sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide to “improve the product composition and promote new pore formation,” according to the study. 

The researchers used the activated carbon to treat water contaminated by nanoplastics from polyethylene terephthalate, a form of polyester often used in plastic water bottles and clothing such as fleece. 

The study aimed to fill current research gaps. First, the researchers wanted to address a gap associated with the chemical activation of epoxy plastic, which the researchers say has not focused on cured epoxy thermosets. Second, they wanted to examine the adsorption of nanoplastics onto carbon material, which they said is limited to the investigation of charged polystyrene particles.  

The researchers’ next steps will look to apply this clean-up process with other types of plastics and scale-up testing in municipal wastewater treatment facilities, which they said often contain a variety of other contaminants in addition to microplastics.  

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