Current technologies for water purification are limited by their contaminant-specific removal capability, requiring multiple processes to meet water quality objectives. Here we show an innovative biomimetic micellar nanocoagulant that imitates the structure of Actinia, a marine predator that uses its tentacles to ensnare food, for the removal of an array of water contaminants with a single treatment step. The Actinia-like micellar nanocoagulant has a core–shell structure and readily disperses in water while maintaining a high stability against aggregation. To achieve effective coagulation, the nanocoagulant everts its configuration, similar to Actinia. The shell hydrolyses into ‘flocs’ and destabilizes and enmeshes colloidal particles while the core is exposed to water, like the extended tentacles of Actinia, and adsorbs the dissolved contaminants. The technology, with its ability to remove a broad spectrum of contaminants and produce high-quality water, has the potential to be a cost-effective replacement for current water treatment processes.

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Change history

  • 23 January 2019

    In the version of the Supplementary Information file originally published with this Article, the images used for Supplementary Fig. 4 were incorrect and have now been replaced. This does not affect the results of the Article.


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The authors are grateful for financial support from the Major Program of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant no. 91434132), the Fund for Innovative Research Group of NSFC (grant no. 51721006) and the US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship awarded to R.M.D.

Author information


  1. Department of Environmental Engineering, Peking University, Beijing, China

    • Jinwei Liu
    • , Shihan Cheng
    •  & Huazhang Zhao
  2. The Key Laboratory of Water and Sediment Sciences, Ministry of Education, Beijing, China

    • Jinwei Liu
    •  & Huazhang Zhao
  3. Beijing Engineering Research Center of Advanced Wastewater Treatment, Beijing, China

    • Shihan Cheng
  4. College of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, China University of Petroleum, Qingdao, China

    • Na Cao
    •  & Chunxiang Geng
  5. State Key Laboratory of Heavy Oil Processing, China University of Petroleum, Beijing, China

    • Chen He
    • , Quan Shi
    •  & Chunming Xu
  6. Beijing Innovation Center for Engineering Science and Advanced Technology, Peking University, Beijing, China

    • Jinren Ni
  7. State Key Laboratory of Plateau Ecology and Agriculture, Qinghai University, Xining, China

    • Jinren Ni
  8. Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

    • Ryan M. DuChanois
    •  & Menachem Elimelech


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H.Z. conceived the initial idea and experimental design. M.E. and H.Z. supervised the study and experiments. J.L. performed the nanocoagulant synthesis and characterization experiments. N.C. and C.G. investigated the coagulation performance. J.N. and J.L. designed the coagulation behaviour experiments, and R.M.D. and J.L. carried out and analysed the experiments. S.C. carried out the molecular dynamics simulations. C.H., Q.S. and C.X. contributed to the data analysis of the FT-ICR mass spectra. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. M.E., R.M.D., H.Z. and J.L. wrote the paper with help from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Menachem Elimelech or Huazhang Zhao.

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  1. Supplementary information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–17, Supplementary Tables 1–5

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