A polymer made from canola oil and sulphur (left) can remove mercury metal from soil. After reacting with mercury metal, the polymer changes color from brown to black. Photo: kerafast

A mix of waste canola oil and sulfur can trap mercury pollution – some of the most toxic leftovers from heavy industry. The rubber-like substance, devised by an Australian scientist and being marketed by a Boston-based reagent company, is already undergoing field trials – and could be a game-changer in cleaning up mining and other pollution, the experts told Laboratory Equipment.

The brown polymer absorbs the most common forms of mercury, from metal to vapor to organic compounds laced with the dangerous element, they report.

The effectiveness of the material was described in the latest issue of the Wiley publication Chemistry: A European Journal. It removed 98 percent or more of the mercury from solutions. Even in the challenging pollution within soil, the material sucked out the element, report the authors, who included scientists from Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Portugal.

The material is made entirely from repurposed waste: the sulfur byproduct from the petroleum industry, and recycled unsaturated cooking oil.

“The rapid reaction between the porous version of the polymer and mercury bode(s) well for multiple industrial applications,” the authors conclude.

The field trials are underway at mining sites and places where mercury-based fungicides have been historically used, said Justin Chalker, the lead inventor of the material, and a senior lecturer in synthetic chemistry at Flinders University in Australia.

“We are currently working with engineers to upscale production of the polymer so that we can prepare one ton of inventory,” he told Laboratory Equipment by e-mail.

The work was funded by the Australian Government National Environmental Science Program Emerging Priorities Funding, the Australian Research Council, and the latest study was also supported in part by the Royal Society of Great Britain and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (two scientists of which were authors on the latest paper).

Kerafast, the Massachusetts-based company whose slogan is “Reagents for the Greater Good,” is marketing the polymers for use around the world.

But that is just the first step, said Chalker.

“I suspect that in one year we will have this production capability and within two years we will be supplying the sorbent for major remediation efforts,” added Chalker.

Ambitious goals follow, Chalker added.

Currently, Flinders has complete ownership of the intellectual property, with Chalker as lead inventor on the various patents. But he aims to establish a spin-off company over the next year that will make profits – and eventually translate the revenues to benefit some 15 million people living in areas of the globe with a legacy of mining pollution, he said.

“My personal goal is to use revenue earned from mercury capture in the oil, gas and coal sectors (among others) to subsidize water and soil remediation in developing nations riddled with mercury pollution from artisanal gold mining,” he said.