Aggregation combined with gravitational separation is the most commonly used method to treat water globally, but it carries a significant economic and environmental burden as the chemicals used in the process (e.g., coagulants) generate ~8 million tons of metal-based sludge waste annually. To simultaneously deal with the issues of process sustainability, cost, and efficiency, we developed materials reengineered from pristine or waste fibers (e.g., cellulose, polyester, cotton, and keratin) to serve as super-bridging agents, adsorbents and ballast media. This study shows that these sustainable materials (fibers, microspheres, and flakes functionalized with Si, Al and/or Fe) considerably increased the floc size (~6630 µm) compared to conventional physicochemical treatment (~520 µm; using alum and polyacrylamide). The fiber-based materials also reduced chemical usage (20–60 %) and improved contaminant removal during settling by increasing floc size and density. Moreover, the unprecedented size of flocs produced using fiber-based materials (13 times larger compared to conventional treatment) enabled easy floc removal by screening, thereby eliminating the need for a settling tank, a large and costly process unit used to treat more than 70% of water globally. Our results show that fiber-based materials can be effective solutions at removing classical (e.g., natural organic matter (NOM) and phosphorus, via electrostatic affinities) and emerging contaminants (e.g., microplastics and nanoplastics). Due to their large size (> 3000 µm), some Si-grafted and Fe-grafted fiber-based materials were easily recovered from settled/screened sludge and reused multiple times for coagulation/flocculation. These reusable materials combined with separation via screening could allow global water treatment facilities to reduce their capital and operating costs as well as their environmental footprint. Finally, our results also show that these materials could be used in synergy with coagulants and flocculants to improve existing water treatment plants for the removal of NOM, phosphorus, turbidity, total suspended solids and microplastics.
Supplementary Information for "Sustainable Fiber-Based Materials as Super-bridging Agents, Adsorbents, and Ballast Media"