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Postcard from India: University of Waterloo student’s nanocomposite both detects and scavenges mercury in contaminated water

Water contamination caused by effluents from mining, smelters, foundries, and other metal-based industries poses a serious threat to human life and the environment. Given this threat, the development of smart materials for the in-situ monitoring and remediation of heavy metal ions in water is in high demand.

Under the guidance of Professor Michael K.C. Tam in the University of Waterloo’s Department of Chemical Engineering, I have been developing novel nanocomposites based on sustainable nanomaterials that can remove wastewater contaminants. Prof. Tam’s laboratory specializes in the design and development of novel functional materials based on eco-friendly nanomaterials and polymers.

Through the university’s Office of Research, I learned about the Globalink Research Award and how it could support international research collaboration activities. From there, Prof. Tam and I pursued a collaboration with Professor Thalappil Pradeep’ research laboratory at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. Professor Pradeep and his colleagues are experts in developing nanocomposites and noble metal nanoclusters that display high selectivity and sensitivity to contaminants.

Under the supervision of both professors, I worked with a group of students from Professor Pradeep’s research group to develop a smart nanocomposite that can simultaneously detect and scavenge the heavy metal ions in water. Its nanocomponents help in the efficient adsorption (the adhesion of molecules to a surface) and binding of heavy-metal ions, such as mercury, in contaminated water.

The nanocomposite fluoresces with a bright red emission under UV light; however, upon the adsorption of mercury ions from water, this fluorescence quenches. This means that the fluorescence disappears and provides a helpful visual indication of the nanocomposite’s efficacy for both in-situ monitoring and remediation of contaminated water. 

The project’s success has led to a joint Indian Patent Application between Professor Pradeep’s and Professor Tam’s respective labs, as well as a publication in the American Chemical Society’s Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering journal. In addition to these achievements, my Globalink Research Award experience contributed in a great way to the development of my research and interpersonal skills.

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec their support of the Globalink Research Award program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with international partners to support this award, including Campus France and Inria, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.