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NETL Researchers Earn R&D 100 Award for Sorbent Technology

r and dThe NETL research team behind the development of Multi-functional Sorbent Technology (MUST) has earned a prestigious R&D 100 Award for its game-changing suite of low-cost, versatile sorbents that is highly effective in cleaning contaminated waterways and removing metals from electronic and pharmaceutical production processes.

The MUST team, which was named a winner in the Mechanical/Materials category during a virtual awards ceremony held Wednesday, Oct. 20, is led by NETL’s McMahan Gray, a physical scientist in the Materials Engineering & Manufacturing directorate. Other team members are Walter Wilfong, Qiuming Wang, Fan Shi, Tuo Ji, Thomas Tarka, Nicholas Siefert and Brian Kail. Click here to watch a video about their revolutionary technology.

The R&D 100 Awards competition annually recognizes 100 winning products and technologies as the disruptors that will change industries and make the world a better place in the coming years. “MUST certainly meets those criteria and others because it is a groundbreaking product that offers a practical, affordable and green approach to recover critical materials such as aluminum, cobalt and rare earth elements and removes the threat of selenium, lead and other heavy metals that contaminate water supplies,” Gray said.

“To the best of NETL’s knowledge, MUST is the only sorbent-based technology to reduce selenium to consistently meet federal discharge limits,” Gray added.

MUST has the added advantage of being regenerable and reusable, providing a recycling aspect that reduces waste and lowers costs. NETL research has demonstrated that the adsorption capacity of MUST for some key metal contaminants is 50% higher than other commercial exchange methods.

Only 100 to 500 microns in diameter, the white sorbent particles look like fine grains of sand. When ounces or pounds of these particles are put together, they can remove contaminants down to the parts per trillion level. MUST can be deployed into a variety of configurations to treat dynamic water sources such as rivers and subsurface groundwater, plus stagnant sources such as settling ponds contaminated by wastewater runoff.

“We’ve already partnered with industry on projects working toward developing systems to treat acid mine discharges in the Appalachian region, including one in West Virginia. This work is advancing with industry partner Somerset International, a firm based in western Pennsylvania,” Gray said.

Other industry partners include Dow Chemical. The versatility of MUST also makes it highly effective to remove metals from electronic and pharmaceutical production processes.

From a consumer perspective, a MUST product for household use would feature a packed bed filtering cartridge that, after reaching capacity, is returned to the supplier or manufacturer and exchanged for a new or regenerated unit. “Because the product is regenerable, it may be reused rather than discarded, which helps reduce waste and safeguards the environment,” Gray said.

A renowned worldwide competition now in its 59th year, the 2021 R&D 100 Awards contest received entries from 17 different countries and regions. This year, the judging panel included nearly 50 well-respected industry professionals across the globe.

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.