New polymer made of sugar molecules purify water ‘in seconds,’ study says

© Lee Jae Won
US scientists have developed a new polymer that has a unique capacity to remove pollutant substances from water “in seconds.” The discovery could revolutionize the water-purification industry, make the process cheaper, and involve minimum energy.

A team of researchers from Cornell University made the breakthrough. The full research has been published in Journal Nature this week.

“What we did is make the first high-surface-area material made of cyclodextrin [sugar molecules bound together in a ring],” said Will Dichtel, associate professor of chemistry, who led the research, “combining some of the advantages of the activated carbon with the inherent advantages of the cyclodextrin.”

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“These materials will remove pollutants in seconds, as the water flows by,” he said. “So there’s a potential for really low-energy, flow-through water purification, which is a big deal.”

A porous material made from cup-shaped cyclodextrins, which rapidly bind pollutants and remove them from contaminated water. © Dichtel Group

The polymer has already shown the “uptake of pollutants through adsorption at rates vastly superior to traditional activated carbon – 200 times greater in some cases,”says the press release of the university.

According to Dichtel, activated carbons don’t bind pollutants as strongly as the new polymer.

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"We knew that [water filtering] would be a likely application if we were successful,” Dichtel says. “We were definitely pleasantly surprised with just how good the performance is.”

Dichtel hopes this new material can open ways to commercial water purification and also improve life in developing countries.