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Wealth from waste: How pollution can be turned into something useful

By Kingsley Adegboye

Environmental engineers are using their imagination to clean up the environment and generate wealth from waste at the same time. As our environmental woes intensify, we’ll need even more creative thinking”, says Maria Sotenko, a lecturer in chemical engineering at Loughborough University.

plastic pollution

Solving environmental problems usually just means cleaning up the mess people have contributed to the environment. But scientists are increasingly interested in creating something valuable from pollution. This is why it is said that “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and researchers have now demonstrated several ways that useful products can be obtained from waste in industry and agriculture while also remediating contaminated soil, water and air, according to a report.

Air pollution

The report noted that one environmental problem scientists are urgently trying to solve is the problem of carbon dioxide emission which causes climate change, adding that researchers are developing processes which can capture carbon dioxide and convert it into useful chemicals like methanol, which can be used for fuel cells or urea, which is used as a solvent in the chemical industry, in nitrogen fertiliser and lactic acid, which can be used as a food preservative.

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It said carbon dioxide can also be captured and used to help grow algae, which are then harvested for biofuel.

Water pollution

On waste water, the report said: “What we all flush away from our homes, offices and elsewhere contains toxins and organic pollutants that treatment facilities remove before they can reach natural water systems like rivers and the ocean. However, researchers are trying to recover and turn this organic matter into something useful.

“Phosphorus and nitrogen are essential soil nutrients that are found in waste water which could be returned to farm fields as fertilisers. Researchers have also thought of micro organisms to break down toxic organic contaminants which are found in waste water and generate electricity from them.

“As well as cleaning the water, microbial fuel cells would turn waste water treatment facilities into giant batteries for green energy as electrochemically active bacteria degrade organic substances and release electrons to generate an electric current.”

Soil pollution

“Soil contamination with heavy metals is particularly tricky to solve. Usually, the only solution is to dig out the contaminated soil and dispose of it at a landfill site. Even then, contaminants can leach out of the soil and into underground water reservoirs, potentially ending up in plants and food crops, which soak up the water during growth.

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