Nanoscience Solutions for Sensing, Extraction, and Destroying Micropollutants


Clean drinking water is a human right that is under threat. Garbage, much of it plastic, forms entire islands in the ocean. Even more concerning are micropollutants, the garbage we can’t see when we take a sip of water.  Nobel Prizes have been awarded for various ways of building new, cheap materials to withstand the harshest environments; however, this success has produced a new class of toxic chemicals that are almost impossible to break down.


For example, North Carolinians have recently been exposed to perfluoroalkane substances (PFAS), a micropollutant found in common household items like Teflon and firefighting foams. PFAS is a class of micropollutant that may cause birth defects, cancer, and kidney and liver disease. The North Carolina legislature has recognized this issue by investing millions of dollars into defining the scope of the PFAS problem; however, the problem isn’t limited to North Carolina.  All corners of our country and the entire globe are being affected by these micropollutants. In particular, micropollutants tend to be highly concentrated in industrialized areas and military bases due to their release from manufacturing byproducts and firefighting foams, respectively.  Thus, the ability to detect micropollutants at the earliest onset of pollution is paramount, as is the ability to extract them from the environment for eventual destruction.


This problem has the potential to be solved in its entirety with the appropriate support, from sensing molecules to destroying them.  State-of-the-art sensing is out of reach to those who are most affected and depends on sample collection, preparation, and analysis in centralized facilities with highly specialized instrumentation.  Our group is working with the Engineering Research and Development Center (ERDC) to develop deployable micropollutant sensors.  Initial work at UNC CH has produced inexpensive sensors (<$60 per sensor) that will enable a concerned citizen to detect micropollutants at the earliest onset of pollution.  We are also creating new nanomaterials that will enable communities to extract micropollutants after sensing. These materials will vastly improve upon current technology, enhancing cost efficiency and sustainability with multiple cycles of reuse. Finally, we are working on new destruction pathways using light, nanoparticles, and electricity to break down micropollutants into useful commodity chemicals. 

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Formation of Molecularly Imprinted Polymers

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Detection Scheme and Calibration of GenX