Egg Whites Aerogel Could Filter Microplastics from Seawater
(Credit: Pixabay)
Innovation Sustainability

Egg Whites Aerogel Could Filter Microplastics from Seawater

As the pollution from microplastics and the lack of drinkable water worsens, finding effective techniques for filtering and desalinating seawater is crucial. However, a new aerogel made from egg whites shows promise.

How Did the Idea of Using Egg Whites Arise?

During a faculty meeting, Professor Craig Arnold of Princeton University initially got the idea when contemplating the bread in his sandwich. He asked his lab team to create various bread recipes with added carbon because he believed that the internal structure of the bread would function well if it were incorporated into a water-filtration aerogel structure.

At first, none of the bread aerogels could match the structure well enough, so the team kept taking out ingredients until they were left with only egg whites and a little bit of carbon. “It was the proteins in the egg whites that were leading to the structures that we needed,” said Prof. Arnold.

How Is the Egg Whites-Based Aerogel Made?

This microscope image reveals how the egg-whites aerogel is comprised of graphene sheets stretched across carbon fiber networks.
This microscope image reveals how the egg-whites aerogel is comprised of graphene sheets stretched across carbon fiber networks. (Credit: Shaharyar Wani)

The current version of the aerogel allegedly removes microplastic particles and salt from seawater with 99% and 98% efficiency, respectively. And it’s simple to make: freeze-dry the egg protein/carbon mixture, then heat it to 1,652 ºF (900 ºC) in an oxygen-free setting. The result is a porous material with a bread-like structure consisting of strands of carbon fibers and graphene sheets.

The aerogel reportedly performs far better than activated carbon filters and does not require energy like reverse osmosis systems. Instead, the material relies on gravity to pull seawater through. Currently, there is no information about how fast it filters water.

Interestingly, last year, scientists at England’s Plymouth Marine Laboratory launched a series of trials that involved testing mussels’ constant filter feeding as a potential wide-scale application for cleaning microplastic pollution in our oceans.

Potential Downfalls

It should be emphasized that although eggs are often inexpensive and plentiful, using them to make aerogel would reduce the amount available for use as food. However, this shouldn’t be a problem because it has been discovered that similar commercially available proteins function just as well.

In addition, while eggs have less carbon emission than other animal food, they are still chicken. According to PETA, “hens spend their lives caged in misery.”

Future Plans

Arnold and his colleagues are currently attempting to scale up the production process. Aside from water filtration, potential uses for the aerogel include thermal insulation, energy storage, and soundproofing. The findings are detailed in a paper published on August 24, 2022, in Materials Today.

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