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Yarn: The Next Great Environmental Cleanup Tool?

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Acrylic fiber could be used as a cheap and effective way to clean up polluted mining sites. (EARTHWORKS/Flickr)
Acrylic fiber could be used as a cheap and effective way to clean up polluted mining sites. (EARTHWORKS/Flickr)
 By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact
September 11, 2018

MOSCOW, Idaho — Idaho researchers may have found a new, green technology that is perfectly suited for cleaning up environmental messes: yarn. Scientists at LCW Supercritical Technologies in Moscow and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found that acrylic fiber is highly effective at extracting uranium from seawater.

President of LCW Supercritical Technologies Chien Wai said the experiments led him to wonder how this material would do extracting other heavy metals, such as those found at high levels in polluted mining sites. Wai said it turns out yarn works very well for this process, too.

"If we can use this cheap material to clean up the contaminated streams, waterways, that would be a great environmental remediation technology,” Wai said.

Wai said there are even more applications for acrylic strands of fiber picking up heavy metals, such as filters for cleaning lead out of drinking water. The experiment extracting uranium from seawater was made possible through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and could get a large-scale test in the Gulf of Mexico.

Wai said he would like to have the opportunity to test the material for environmental remediation and is still waiting on that chance. Along with being effective, Wai underscored how cheap the process is.

"We even get the sweaters from Goodwill and that's 100% acrylic fiber - used sweaters - and they work just as well,” he said. “So you can think that this making waste into a wonderful material for environmental applications."

Wai noted even more possibilities for acrylic fiber, such as picking up vanadium, which is important in battery and steel production, and extracting precious metals like gold and silver. The next step for researchers is scaling the technology up for commercial use.

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