Researchers at Cornell University have developed a new polymer that could transform the way water is purified around the world. Led by associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology Will Dichtel, the team has invented a porous version of cyclodextrin, which demonstrates a greatly increased absorption rate – sometimes 200 times greater – compared to traditional methods. “These materials will remove pollutants in seconds, as the water flows by,” says Dichtel, “so there’s a potential for really low-energy, flow-through water purification, which is a big deal.”


cyclodextrin, Dichtel group, cyclodextrin diagram

Cyclodextrin is a group of compounds composed of sugar molecules that are bound together in a ring structure. Cyclodextrin is a key ingredient in air fresheners such as Febreeze, in which cyclodextrin extracted from corn starch traps pollutants and foul smelling odors. Activated carbons, used in the traditional method of filtration, have a greater surface area than previously designed cyclodextrin filters but with a lesser ability to bind pollutants. “What we did is make the first high-surface-area material made of cyclodextrin,” Dichtel says, “combining some of the advantages of the activated carbon with the inherent advantages of the cyclodextrin. When you combine the best features of those two materials, you get a material that’s even better than either class.”

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The cyclodextrin polymer used in the Cornell team’s filtration method can be reused several times without loss of effectiveness. While activated carbon filters require a powerful heat treatment before it can be reused, cyclodextrin filters may be washed with alcohol at room temperature. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the team is optimistic towards the method’s application. “Traditionally, that gap between the laboratory discovery and getting something out in the world where it can help people is difficult to bridge,” says Dichtel. “To have support that is totally unrestricted, that can be used pragmatically in that space, is really valuable.”

Via Cornell University

Images via Dichtel Group and MGKAYA/ISTOCKPHOTO