Researchers Say 'Super Sponge' Could Provide Cheap Way to Clean Water

March 16, 2017 10:32 PM

They call it the “super sponge.”

And researchers at the University of Minnesota in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources say it could go a long way toward removing pollution from Minnesota’s lakes and waterways.

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Those researchers have developed a special sponge-like material that can attract toxins in a matter of seconds.

"To quickly, and in a very cheap way, clean the water,” Assistant Professor Abdennour Abbas said.

Abbas showed 5 EYEWITNESS News how a sponge he developed to remove mercury from water worked in his lab. 

He said it takes a matter of seconds for the sponge to absorb the mercury out of a bowl of contaminated water. Tiny particles of selenium in the sponge attract the mercury, then transform it into a non-toxic complex so it can be disposed of in a landfill.

The sponge also kills bacterial and fungal microbes.

“You put the sponge in, squeeze it, and you have clean water,” Abbas said.

The groundbreaking development had humble beginnings.

Abbas said the base foam researchers used came from a low-cost mattress bought at Target.

"I sent my student to a local store, and I said get me the cheapest sponge you can buy because there is no point making a technology no one can buy,” he said.

The sponge is powerful.

For example, Abbas said it would only require a sponge the size of a basketball to remove all of the mercury from Como Lake in St. Paul.

He said he is in discussions with two companies who are looking at taking the new technology to market, and that the sponges can be developed to remove other toxins from water so they have a wide impact in the real world.

“We don’t want to work on something no one cares about,” Abbas said.

Mercury is very toxic and can cause long-term health damage, but removing it from water is challenging.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said more than 1,600 lakes and waterways in the state are impaired because of mercury contamination.

“Obviously people who fish here would like to see the mercury levels reduced so they're not limited in what they consider safe consumption of fish,” Bruce Monson of the MPCA said.

Abbas said in addition to improving air and water quality, aquatic life and public health, the new technology would have an impact on inspiring new regulations.

That's because it has the potential of bringing costs down, making it easier for industries to meet regulatory requirements.

That would protect the environment.

"Clean water is one of the biggest issues, not only in Minnesota but worldwide,” Abbas said.

The research was funded through the state’s MnDRIVE program. 


Matt Belanger

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