WMU researcher making groundbreaking gains in filtration of toxic chemicals

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Climate change is fueled by carbon and other harmful chemicals being released into the atmosphere. A Western Michigan University professor is working on a revolutionary way to capture those particles before they have a chance to do damage.

Dr. Mert Atilhan, associate professor of chemical and paper engineering, and his research team of students and researchers from other universities have discovered a way to modify polymers to trap gases without compromising their integrity. Put into practice, the polymers could look like small, grain-sized pellets housed in large vessels next to an industrial plant.

"Whatever you purge from that plant, it's going to eat that gas and send clean gas back up into the atmosphere. And it's going to keep accumulating carbon dioxide or nitrous oxides, whatever bad stuff is in it," Atilhan says. It could lead to a greener, more efficient filtration system at factories around the world.

Atilhan's work, which was published in the journal "Nature Energy," is revolutionary because it takes a process that historically has been slow and volatile and streamlined it—a sort of "ship-in-a-bottle" method that creates and modifies the polymer at the same time.

"You might have a promising material that has good potential to capture gases, but sometimes it fails because of the chemical modification," he says. "But our method is showing an alternative and very effective method that can take any polymer that is porous and that has potential to capture (gases such as) carbon dioxide or methane and … you can modify it to the specific gas that you're targeting without losing or compromising all of the significant polymer properties."

Building on this transformative work, Atilhan and his team have once again made headlines with their latest publication in "Nature Communications." In their latest research, they've developed a simple yet innovative method to tweak special polymers—sponge-like materials—to make them even more effective in capturing harmful gases without losing their essential properties.

"It's like fine-tuning a musical instrument to get the perfect sound; we are fine-tuning these materials to catch specific bad gases more efficiently and cost-effectively," Atilhan says, illustrating the potential impact of this pioneering research on environmental protection. 

Traditional filtration methods are expensive, inefficient and often depend on fossil fuel to regenerate. Atilhan's efficient, sustainable process could be a game-changer. It's already garnering attention from a major international oil and gas company.

Ahmad al-Bodour interacts with science equipment in a lab. He is wearing a white lab coat and safety goggles.

Ahmad al-Bodour adjusts equipment in Atilhan's lab.

"All around the world, people are working on this. But our approach is really unique," says Atilhan. "We're trying to engineer our equipment in such a way that it is really quick and really economically feasible, so anyone can use it anywhere in the world."

And it doesn't stop at gases; Atilhan's team is creating a toolkit that would allow users to customize their filtration techniques for their own uses—from removing harmful forever chemicals from water to leaching toxins from plastic products.

"We are using natural materials that are very economically feasible to obtain, and we're using them to make gels that are coated on filter papers. Once it passes through water. which is contaminated by PFAS, it's capturing the PFAS through these natural compounds."

Students play an active role in the groundbreaking research underway in Atilhan's lab. Ahmad al-Bodour, a chemical engineering doctoral student and graduate research discovery assistant, helped design a unique machine for high-pressure gas capture to measure the effectiveness of polymers and other porous materials. The work he's done will give him an edge over his peers as he approaches completion of his Ph.D. 

"I learned a lot of things from (Dr. Atilhan) in research thinking as well as the tools that I need for research. So I think I have enough knowledge from his lab to go on to the next level," he says.

That's Atilhan's goal: Growing, through experience-driven education, the next generation of engineers who will be on the forefront of discoveries related to the chemical challenges of the future.

"I tell (my students), 'This is your base to come in and learn. Whatever I know is yours; knowledge is something to share. And by the time you graduate, if you don't know more than I know then I'm not doing my job."

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