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Egg whites could be the solution to clean water in the future

Microplastic pollution and increased scarcity are the two largest threats to freshwater sources globally. A team of researchers at Princeton University have found a solution to both of these problems in an unsuspecting candidate – egg whites.

Not to freak anyone out, but recent studies are finding that humans accidentally consume around 5 grams of microplastics per week. It’s both worrying and sad, but it’s true.

Most of these particles come from microplastics in our air and water – bottled or from the kitchen tap. They’re an almost-invisible issue that experts everywhere are looking to resolve.

And ironically, the answer could’ve been right under your nose during breakfast this morning. That’s right, researchers at Princeton University have successfully developed a new material that can remove salt and microplastics from seawater using egg whites.

When heated up or freeze-dried, egg whites turn into an aerogel. Aerogel is a lightweight and porous material that can be used for various purposes, including water filtration, energy storage, and sound or thermal insulation.

The idea was generated by Craig Arnold, the vice dean of innovation at Princeton, during a team meeting. ‘I was staring at the bread in my sandwich and thought to myself, this is exactly the kind of structure that we need,’ Arnold recalled.

He started with bread, first asking his team to replicate an aerogel structure by mixing carbon into various dough recipes. After a few successful rounds of trial and error, the researchers began eliminating ingredients until only egg whites remained – and what they found yielded promising results.

What’s so special about egg whites?

As most lovers of health and fitness will know, egg whites are a complex system of almost pure protein.

When freeze-dried and heated to 900 degrees Celsius – sans oxygen, of course  – their unique makeup results in interconnected strands of carbon fibres and sheets of graphene.

As it turns out, graphene is an ultra-thin compound that is capable of removing salt from water with 98 percent efficiency and microplastics from seawater with 99 percent efficiency. Talk about hitting two birds with one stone!

Using egg whites to purify water comes with significant benefits. Firstly, because chicken eggs are are food staple found all over the world. Using eggs, graphene is inexpensive to produce, energy efficient, and has a high success rate when tasked with pollutant removal.

This discovery is a huge deal as its benefits extend beyond removing microplastics from water. Egg whites, when turned into graphene, could also be used for desalination purposes in an increasingly freshwater-scarce world.

Reverse osmosis (the process which results in desalinated water) requires a ton of energy and additional water for operation. Using the Princeton researchers’ method, only gravity is needed.

It also results in zero water wasted, which is a big win.

Potential downsides

As with every new discovery, the pros and cons of upscaling lab-tested methods must be weighed.

The researchers were quick to raise concerns over competing with the food cycle, as eggs are a cheap and accessible source of protein for millions of people around the world.

They also noted that the material is still in its development stage and needs further refinement before it can be used on a larger scale. The next task for the team at Princeton will be to refine the fabrication process in order for it to be used in water purification on a greater scale.

Still, it’s a huge breakthrough one that could help address our worsening water crisis in the future. With the UN estimating that half the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2025, all options should be considered.

All the success to the researchers working to advance this project. We’ll be keeping out eye out for further updates!