RESEARCHERS from Flinders University in South Australia have created a polymer that removes mercury pollution and some other toxic metals from soil and water.

Known as a sulphur-limonene polysulfide, the polymer is a plastic like substance that can be moulded to fit a variety of shapes.

Created using waste sulphur and limonene, found mainly in orange peels, the polymer will be used to coat water pipes carrying domestic and waste water and, in some cases, to remove mercury from large bodies of waste water.

With both sulphur and limonene being produced in large quantities as a waste product, this makes the polymer affordable for use in large-scale environmental clean ups as well as being cheap to produce.

Primarily developed by Flinders University lecturer in synthetic chemistry Justin Chalker, the dark red material turns yellow when it absorbs mercury – meaning it can also be used as a mercury detector.

“More than 70 million tonnes of sulphur is produced each year by the petroleum industry, so there are literally mountains of it lying unused around the globe, while more than 70 thousand tonnes of limonene is produced each year by the citrus industry,” he said.

“So not only is this new polymer good for solving the problem of mercury pollution, but it also has the added environmental bonus of putting this waste material to good use while converting them into a form that is much easier to store so that once the material is ‘full’ it can easily be removed and replaced.”

Mercury exposure is proven to damage the central nervous system of humans – caused sometimes through the skin or through ingestion, such as through eating contaminated fish, Dr Chalker said.

Researchers from the University of Tulsa, the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Lisbon and the University of Cambridge also contributed to the project.

A commercialisation partnership for the technology is moving forward with Flinders Partners and the University of Tulsa.