Skip to content
Main menu hidden.
Published: 2023-11-02 Updated: 2023-11-03, 07:36

New method to recycle adsorbents in wastewater treatment

NEWS Removing pollutants from wastewater using adsorbents like activated carbon is often unsustainable. Once saturated, these adsorbents need to be regenerated which can require high temperatures. Pierre Oesterle's thesis shows how this can be done in a more environmentally friendly way using pressure cooking technology.

Every day, thousands of compounds are released into wastewater from domestic and industrial effluents – from pesticides and antibiotics to plasticizers. To stop these pollutants from reaching the environment, materials such as activated carbon, possessing a high surface area, can be used to adsorb them.

“These adsorbents are produced from coal and coconut industries, making their use unsustainable. In addition, the spent activated carbon is often regenerated by first drying the adsorbent and then using temperatures above 600 degrees Celsius to degrade the adsorbed pollutants,” says Pierre Oesterle, doctoral student at the Department of Chemistry at Umeå University.

In his thesis, Pierre Oesterle explored residues from wood and agricultural industries as alternatives to commonly used activated carbon. These adsorbents, so-called activated biochars, were investigated for their capacity to adsorb two antibiotics, trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole, and caffeine. He subsequently used a new regeneration method that do not require a drying step and which operate at lower treatment temperature: hydrothermal treatment.

The absence of the compounds we are looking for does not mean that they have vanished

The results are promising. The compounds adsorbed were not detected at temperatures above 280 degrees Celsius; instead, they transformed into other products. In addition, when the materials were recycled, their removal capacity increased for some of the contaminants. Finally, the degradation of the adsorbed compounds showed that new carbon structures formed on the surface of the materials which could have advantages when it is being recycled.

“Circular economy is all about recycling and reusing materials. These results can lead to development of hydrothermal treatment on a larger scale, both of activated carbon and other alternatives. It may also increase public awareness that the absence of the compounds we are looking for does not mean that they have vanished. Instead, they transform into secondary products potentially more harmful than the initial ones. These by-products need to be assessed. A famous quote sums it up: ‘Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything transforms’,” says Pierre Oesterle.

Explanation of terms

Adsorbents: Materials that can "capture" and retain other substances on their surface.

Activated carbon: A special type of carbon with a very large surface area. Often used to purify water and air due to its ability to bind contaminants and pollutants.

Activated biochar: Carbon derived from biological materials which, like activated carbon, has a large surface area and can be used to purify water.

Hydrothermal treatment: A technique where water and heat are used under elevated pressure to process materials and sometimes alter their properties.

Regenerate: To clean something and make it ready for reuse.

About the dissertation

Pierre Oesterle, Department of Chemistry, Umeå University, defends his thesis entitled Exploring the fate of emerging contaminants during hydrothermal regeneration of carbonaceous adsorbentson Friday 10 November. The defense will take place at 09.00 at Carl Kempe salen (Stora hörsalen), KBC-huset. The faculty opponent is Dr. Capucine Dupont, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Environmental Engineering and Water Technology, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, in The Netherlands.

Read the full thesis