In the CBEN experiments, Wong and collaborators compared the effectiveness of four varieties of palladium catalysts: bulk palladium, palladium powder on an aluminum oxide support base, pure palladium nanoparticles and a hybrid nanoparticle developed by Wong that consists of a gold nanoparticle covered with a thin coat of palladium atoms.
As metal particles get progressively smaller, a higher percentage of the atoms in the particle are found on the surface of the particle instead of being locked away inside the metal where they cannot interact with other chemicals. For example, in the bulk palladium, less than 4 percent of the palladium atoms were on surface of the particle. Pure palladium nanoparticles had 24 percent of the metal on the surface. In the gold-palladium nanoparticles, 100 percent of the palladium atoms are accessible for reaction.
"We've documented the efficiency of these catalysts in breaking down TCE, and the next step is engineering a system that will allow us to get at the polluted groundwater," said Joe Hughes, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and a co-leader of CBEN's environmental research programs. "The scale of TCE contamination is enormous, so any new scheme for TCE remediation has got to clean large volumes of water very quickly for a just a few pennies."
Hughes, Wong and their collaborators hope to develop a device that would include a cylindrical pump containing a catalytic membrane of the gold-palladium nanoparticles. The device would be placed down existing wells where it would pump water through continuously, breaking TCE into non-toxic components.
Cost is the pri