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Small Particles, Big Clean-Up

Scientists of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, are exploring ways to use some very small materials to clean up some very big environmental problems.

Research chemist Dr. Souhail Al-Abed and his EPA colleagues have synthesized activated carbon with nanoparticles of iron/palladium bimetallic to produce a new nanoscale treatment to clean up pollutants. The new, tiny technology is offering promise where conventional technologies have been limited in detecting, treating, removing, and preventing environmental contaminants.

The research is proving particularly useful in dealing with Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, a family of persistent organic chemicals that have been linked to a host of dangerous health effects, including cancer. Dr. Al-Abed and his research group found that infusing the carbon with nanoparticles not only made it more effective at adsorbing contaminants, but also degraded the PCBs to less harmful compounds.

The carbon by itself is small and porous, making it effective at trapping and isolating PCBs. This means there are lots of spaces between the granules in the same way there are lots of spaces between pebbles in a pail. The more spaces, the more surface area is available for adsorption or chemical reactions. Infusing the activated carbon with the nanomaterials made it even more powerful as a cleaning technology and offers great promise in improving EPA's efforts to clean up sites contaminated with compounds such as PCBs.

Results of Dr. Al-Abed's work are leading to some innovative practices in pollution control. For example, EPA is developing caps, or barriers, that contain and degrade PCBs during remediation, both at the contaminated site and the surrounding area to which the contamination has spread.

The United States is committed to protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment – air, water, and land – upon which life depends.