Small technology promises to clean up huge volumes of wastewater

Posted 4 September 2017

Metallic glass – a thin strip of an iron-based material that can remove dyes or heavy metals from highly polluted water in just minutesA new way to modify the atomic structure of iron could offer a breakthrough technology for managing wastewater. 

Edith Cowan University’s School of Engineering Associate Professor Laichang Zhang led the groundbreaking research, which has enabled the development of what is known as metallic glass – a thin strip of an iron-based material that can remove dyes or heavy metals from highly polluted water in just minutes.

“It is the disordered atomic structure that gives metallic glass its very interesting and useful characteristics. It works by binding the atoms of the dye or heavy metals to the ribbon, leaving behind useable water,” Zhang said.

“This offers a number of benefits compared to the current method of using iron powder to treat wastewater. It takes time and money to produce iron powder. Furthermore, it ends up creating a lot of sludge, which takes time to process and clean. It’s not very efficient.”

Zhang said the new technology offers the same wastewater management benefits as iron powder application, but with vastly improved outcomes. 

“Iron powder can only be used once. In contrast, the iron-based metallic glass we have developed can be reused up to 20 times, produces no waste iron sludge and can be produced as cheaply a few dollars per kilogram,” he said.

“The metallic glass ribbon is very efficient in contrast to using iron powder. It’s a lot easier to use and costs less, which is very important from a wastewater management perspective.”

Zhang said the technology is already attracting potential clients due to the cost and efficiency benefits, including a collection of Australian water utilities and companies. 

“We have already had significant interest from companies in both China and Australia who are keen to work with us to develop this technology, including Ausino Drilling Services, whose clients include Rio Tinto and the Aluminium Corporation of China,” he said. 

“A few Australian utilities have shown their interest in the technologies and visited me for discussions, including Water Corporation, as well as Australian Exploration Field Services, Greenpower Energy Limited and Steelfab Global.”

Zhang said the new technology has the potential to deliver wastewater treatment benefits within the Australian context specifically, due to issues surrounding industrial water use and contamination.

“As we know, Australia has a severe problem with water shortage. Water contamination and industrial water use are huge issues, especially in mining,” he said. 

“The technology will be of benefit to Australian water utilities by helping to degrade contaminated mining wastewater.

“The environmental benefits are very apparent. The new technology has the ability to relieve environmental impacts of contaminated water and also of iron powder application, such as high-degradation efficiency, without producing sludge.”

Zhang said that although getting the technology to the point of being operational in industry will rely on investment from interested companies, he expects the turn around to be speedy thanks to limited manufacturing barriers and the overwhelming interest he has received from industry. 

“Application is totally dependent on how this technology will fit into industry-based application from lab trial,” he said. 

“The technology will be further developed with financial support from industrial partners and government sectors. But I believe the technology will be fit for industrial application in a relatively short amount of time as the materials can be mass produced.”