Researchers Create Lining that Absorbs CFL Mercury

A team of researchers at Providence, R.I.-based Brown University led by Robert Hurt, professor of engineering, and engineering student Natalie Johnson may have found a solution to the disposal of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which contain from 3 to 5 milligrams of mercury.

The scientists, along with other Brown engineering students and Steven Hamburg, associate professor of environmental studies, have invented mercury-absorbent materials for commercial use. The team has created a prototype – a mercury-capturing lining attached to the inside of store-bought CFL packaging. The packaging can be placed over the area where a bulb has been broken to absorb the mercury vapor emanating from the spill, or it can capture the mercury of a bulb broken in the box.

The researchers also have created a specially designed lining for plastic bags that soaks up the mercury left over from the CFL shards that are thrown away.

The mercury-absorbent packaging and the lined plastic bags can be safely discarded and recycled, the researchers say, alleviating concerns about contamination or other unwanted environmental consequences.

"It's a complete management system to deal with a bulb broken in the home," says Hurt, director of Brown's Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation, which concentrates on the study and commercial application of nanotechnology.

Brown applied earlier this year for federal patents covering the mercury-absorption packaging and the absorbent material, and the university expects soon to begin discussions with companies on manufacturing the new technology.

The inspiration for the invention followed the discovery that a variant of a substance called nanoselenium – a form of selenium, a trace element used in diet supplements, among other products – absorbed virtually all the mercury emitted from a broken CFL. That finding appears in the online edition of Environmental Science & Technology.

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