The largest source of mercury pollution is gold mining. Almost 20 million people in over 70 countries use mercury to mine for gold. Mercury causes environmental harm, but also damage to the human brain, kidneys and other organs. Children are born with disabilities due to exposure in utero. Death is common in adults, children and newborns. Many countries have already banned mercury use, but more work and better substitutes are needed to stop the practice. The challenge is not just chemical; it’s political, social and economic. Communities have been using mercury for hundreds of years. In some areas, people blame evil spirits and even the devil for mercury’s devastating effects. In others, the immediate financial reward and lack of other choices outweigh the long term costs.
By taking sulphur and waste cooking oil, Justin and his team are creating polymers that capture mercury pollution that then degrades safely in the environment. It’s creative, interesting chemistry. The team hopes it will form the backbone of new mining techniques that can be used in developing countries—techniques that are fast, easy, cheap, reliable, portable and don’t require training. Paired with education and government action, Justin thinks this solution could one day replace mercury in mining.