JAN 31, 2021 6:01 AM PST

Contaminated soil could be a source of chemical wealth

Research released in the journal Science describes a new approach that can be used to synthesize valuable industry chemicals from contaminated soils. The technique, developed by scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and ETH Zurich, uses electrolysis to obtain specific commodity chemicals.

Commodity chemicals are the foundation for many mass-produced products in the chemical industry. Plastics, dyes, and fertilizers, for instance, often requires chlorine gas or bromine for production purposes.  

"Chlorine gas and bromine are difficult to handle, especially for small laboratories, as they require strict safety procedures," said Professor Siegfried Waldvogel, spokesperson for JGU's SusInnoScience research initiative.

"Our method largely eliminates the need for safety measures because it does not require the use of chlorine gas or bromine. It also makes it easy to regulate the reaction in which the desired chemicals are synthesized by controlling the supply of electric current."

The electrolysis process involves the application of an electrical current to a variety of substrates of contaminated soils in order to procure dichloro and dibromo compounds. Both of these compounds can be synthesized into commodity chemicals.

"This is even much simpler than synthesizing dichloro and dibromo products from chlorine gas or bromine, respectively,” notes Professor Waldvogel. “The process can be used for molecules of different sizes and is thus broadly applicable. It is also easy to scale up, and we have already been able to employ it to transform larger quantities in the multi-gram range.”

Photo: Pixabay

The process also serves to decontaminate soils that have been infused with banned insecticides. "There is virtually no natural degradation of such insecticides," warns Waldvogel. "They persist in the environment for extremely long periods and have now even been detected in the Arctic. Our process could help in eliminating such toxic substances and actually exploit them to our benefit in future."

Sources: Science, Eureka Alert

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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