The New Daily

Accidental orange peel discovery could save lives

Scientists stumble over cheap material that can suck deadly mercury out of oceans.

Max Worthington and Justin Chalker who found the material.

Max Worthington and Justin Chalker who found the material.

Australian researchers have accidentally discovered a way to remove mercury from water using a material made from industrial waste and orange peel.

Developers Max Worthington and Justin Chalker, from South Australia’s Flinders University, said until now there had been no such method.

It’s a huge step for the pair, with mercury being a dangerous pollutant that can damage food and water supplies, affect the human nervous system and was especially poisonous for children.

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Synthetic chemist Dr Chalker said the best thing about the material was that it was incredibly cheap and relied on products that were already being discarded.

The affordability of the material meant it could be used for large-scale environmental clean-ups, to coat water pipes carrying domestic and waste water, and even in removing mercury from large bodies of water.

“Mercury contamination plagues many areas of the world, affecting both food and water supplies and creating a serious need for an efficient and cost-effective method to trap this mercury,” Dr Chalker said.

A block of the sulfur-limonene polysulfide: a polymer synthesised entirely from industrial by-products.

A block of the sulfur-limonene polysulfide: a polymer synthesised entirely from industrial by-products. Photo: Max Worthington, Flinders University

His team initially set out to make a useful type of plastic or polymer made from something widely available.

“We ended up settling on sulphur because it’s produced in 70 million tonnes per year by the petroleum industry as a by-product, so there are not very many uses for it, and limonene is produced in 70,000 tonnes per year and so it’s relatively cheap,” Dr Chalker said.

“It literally grows on trees.”

The plastic-like substance they created is made entirely from sulphur and limonene, industrial waste products that are widely available but unused around the world.

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“We take sulphur, which is a by-product of the petroleum industry, and we take limonene, which is the main component of orange oil, so is produced in large quantities by the citrus industry, and we’re able to react them together to form a type of soft red rubber, and what this material does is that it can grab mercury out of the water,” Dr Chalker said.

He said they conducted toxicity studies to make sure that the polymer itself was not harmful to the environment.

“That gives us hope that we’ll be able to commercialise and actually use this in the environment,” Dr Chalker said.

‘Big potential for new substance’

According to Flinders University, mercury pollution occurred as a consequence of a number of industrial activities, including mining and the burning of fossil fuels.

The beauty of the new material is that is relies on products already being discarded.

The beauty of the new material is that is relies on products already being discarded. Photo: Shutterstock

It said levels of the pollutant in the ocean had tripled since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

It also contaminated fish and seafood, entering the human food chain where it had been linked to health problems, and lower IQ in children, and also compromised the reproductive health of birds and fish.

Jack Ng, who heads the risk assessment program for the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment, said mercury’s impact on humans could be devastating.

“When you talk about organic form of mercury, this neurological disorder, high doses can be fatal … [it’s] particularly a problem in younger generation children and its neurological disorders and that’s a major concern,” Dr Ng said.

Dr Ng sees big potential for this new substance.

“From what the briefing describes it seems to be a promising product, typically for mercury in water or in aqueous form it can act with this polymer material,” he said.

The research was published in the German journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

with ABC


  • Mel

    Great find and I agree it should be more fully field tested.
    However, that then creates a concentrated lump of mercury. How then do we safely treat and/or dispose of this?

    • High temperature incinerator will do it, the ones they use to dispose of chemical weapons.

      • Gandgareth .

        Mercury being an element will not be broken down by high temperatures, just vaporised. I guess then at least when it is condensed there would be pure mercury for use.

      • Desurt Trippur

        Just ship it to the DOE. They already have 1300 tons of it sitting around in flasks for some reason. I think they’re reluctant to sell it because it could later be released into the environment by small-scale gold processors and such.

  • Age Mothree

    I use Omega 3 and really concerned about Mercury in the oceans, I have stopped using fish oil due to this concern started to use the new Clary Sage Seed Oil Omega 3 which is mercury free, we are killing our oceans and our environment with this pollution, people wake up !!!

    • Athinker

      Did you know that fish poo in the sea?

  • Mishel Susser

    We must stop Plastic Pollution! Watch how it kills ocean wildlife:

  • Jai Guru

    Lots of people don’t know vitamin A is a highly carcinogenic material in excess doses as well. This critical lack of chemistry in high schools is turning out idiots.

    • irish93

      Simple ignorance isn’t idiocy. The lack of chemistry classes means people are not learning chemistry; it doesn’t mean they’re incapable of learning chemistry.

      • Athinker

        Yes, ignorance can be cured. It’s stupidity that’s permanent. Unfortunately there’s a lot of the latter around these days.

  • geniium

    Something that the Swiss could use to clean the whole mercury scandal in Valais!

  • Jay
    The world’s leader in citrus peel products and limonene.

  • exbert

    > Mercury as a dental filling has been discontinued for ages because of its toxicity.

    Not in the good ol’ US of A, where special interests trump public safety.

    > Mercury in vaccines is rarely present, only when necessary, and even then it’s in such a small amount that its toxicity is insignificant.

    The amount in one flu vaccine, (25 micrograms) exceeds the EPA safety limit by 250 times.

  • exbert

    Thimerosal is toxic to adults and children. Stating the facts is not “fear-mongering”.

    The amount in one flu vaccine, (25 micrograms) exceeds the EPA safety limit by 250 times.

    • Bill Merritt

      Two tuna sandwiches contain about 26 micrograms of methymercury. More than the 25 micrograms of Thimerosol in a flu shot. Which is more likely to be consumed and which is more dangerous?

      • exbert

        The body has ways of dealing with mercury ingested in food. Putting it directly into the bloodstream with a vaccine bypasses all of these protections. It can go straight to the brain, and other tissues before the liver has a chance to detoxify it.

        The same applies to mercury in dental fillings. They constantly release mercury vapor which is inhaled and goes directly into the bloodstream, bypassing the body’s heavy metal defense system.

        • Bill Merritt

          Flu vaccine is not injected into the blood stream. It is injected into the muscle. The main point is that people take in far more mercury from ordinary food than they do from a single flu vaccination once a year.

    • Sean Maddox

      How about you inform yourself about this subject before you begin spreading your fear mongering and misinformation? While there were concerns about the dosage after multiple vaccines, no study has found any link between the amount used in vaccines and any long term harm, like autism. It is good we found a way to remove it, and I applaud that, but I don’t applaud straight propaganda and fear mongering that results in the spread of preventable but deadly, debilitating illnesses.

    • Timothy_Shermans

      Thiomersal does not contain methylmercury, which has the epa safety limit you are referencing. Instead it releases ethylmercury, which is a different compound with different toxicity levels and chemical effects.

      It is important to get the chemical correct, otherwise you might make a similar mistake with methyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol. The first has a lethal dose of about 30-100ml/kg of body weight, while the second is in all your favorite beers, wines and spirits and a similar dose gives you a nice buzz.

      In addition you are comparing the daily epa safety limit to a one time vaccination. If you were getting a flu vaccine every single day then your comparison might be more accurate.

    • Commonincense

      “The amount in one flu vaccine, (25 micrograms) exceeds the EPA safety limit by 250 times” is a furphy.

      If you would like to quote the EPA, here is the page relating to Thimerosal:

  • Commonincense
  • Athinker

    Missing word?

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