Amyloid–carbon hybrid membranes for universal water purification


Industrial development, energy production and mining have led to dramatically increased levels of environmental pollutants such as heavy metal ions, metal cyanides and nuclear waste. Current technologies for purifying contaminated waters are typically expensive and ion specific, and there is therefore a significant need for new approaches. Here, we report inexpensive hybrid membranes made from protein amyloid fibrils and activated porous carbon that can be used to remove heavy metal ions and radioactive waste from water. During filtration, the concentration of heavy metal ions drops by three to five orders of magnitude per passage and the process can be repeated numerous times. Notably, their efficiency remains unaltered when filtering several ions simultaneously. The performance of the membrane is enabled by the ability of the amyloids to selectively absorb heavy metal pollutants from solutions. We also show that our membranes can be used to recycle valuable heavy metal contaminants by thermally reducing ions trapped in saturated membranes, leading to the creation of elemental metal nanoparticles and films.

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Figure 1: Schematic representation of the composite activated carbon–amyloid fibril adsorber membrane and the heavy metal ion purification process for polluted water.
Figure 2: Concentrations of heavy metal and radioactive pollutants before and after filtration through the amyloid fibril–activated carbon hybrid adsorber membrane.
Figure 3: Efficiency of the composite membrane in removing pollutants simultaneously and after several cycles of filtration.
Figure 4: Turning toxic gold ions into non-toxic gold nanoparticles and films.


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The authors thank C. Zeder (ETHZ) for assistance during AAS measurements, J. Adamcik for atomic force microscopy measurements, S. Handschin for electron microscopy, J. Reuteler for lithography support and S. Assenza (ETHZ) for discussions on adsorption isotherms. Support from the ETHZ Microscopy Center (ScopeM) is gratefully acknowledged. R. Wepf and L. Wyss (ETHZ) are thanked for kindly providing radioactive uranyl acetate and phosphorus-32, respectively.

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S.B. performed the experiments, analysed the results and wrote the manuscript. R.M. designed the study, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. Both authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Raffaele Mezzenga.

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Competing interests

The authors are the inventors of a patent filed by ETH Zurich related to the work presented here (EP2921216 and WO2015140074).

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Bolisetty, S., Mezzenga, R. Amyloid–carbon hybrid membranes for universal water purification. Nature Nanotech 11, 365–371 (2016).

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