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Sulfur-rich substance cleans up oil and mercury spills

Water contaminated with mercury, a toxic heavy metal, could be cleaned up using a simple material made from sulfur and canola oil.

Due to the strong bonds that form between sulfur and mercury, sulfur-rich materials are attracting interest for the environmental remediation of sites contaminated with mercury.

Now, a team that included Deakin University researchers has shown that a polymer made by heating sulfur and canola oil — a reaction that can be performed industrially on a multi-tonne scale — could form the basis of a mercury-absorbing material.

The polymer itself showed a modest mercury capture, but carbonizing it at 600 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes produced a material with significantly higher mercury adsorption. Mercury uptake was higher still when the polymer was used to mop up an oil spill and then carbonized, suggesting that it could have a dual use in environmental clean-ups.

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