I'd like to know if I could get micelles to pick up microplastics in water. I read that microplastics are sometimes charged, so can we make the lyophobic end to pick up microplastics, so that they can then be collected on the water surface and be easily disposed? This is the idea I'm planning to pitch for a science fair, is this actually feasible? I read that detergent micelles work well even in hard water, so can we use such detergent micelles to pick up microplastics?


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    $\begingroup$ You may want to search information on water treatment in general (for instance flocculation). While some of what you describe sounds reasonable, the mechanism you describe is not entirely clear. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn
    Sep 20 '19 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ Detergents are very unhealthy for practically all water organisms. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Sep 22 '19 at 18:56

Lyophobic means solvent-hating, and here the solvent is water, so the lyophobic ends (presumably the tails, if we are discussing a normal detergent) will associate to form the hydrophobic core of the micelles. The headgroups meanwhile will preferentially interact with water, forming an interface between solvent and core.

If you add detergent to a solution containing charged plastic particles, the detergent tail is unlikely to interact with the particle unless the particle also displays amphiphilic character. More importantly, headgroups with the same charge as the particle surface will discourage association with the particle. So your proposal lacks a viable aggregation mechanism for at least one reason (charged and hydrophobic regions are not likely to associate) and possibly for a second (oppositely charged regions of detergent and particle will repel). So you need to research carefully:

  • the expected charge of the particles
  • the choice of detergent, ideally with a headgroup with charge opposite that of the particle, and which resists precipitation due to the hard water but will encourage flocculation of the particles
  • scalability, which is a question regarding the volume of water you intend to treat

There is always the possibility that the solution contains ions resulting in charge inversion of the charged particle, another factor to consider.

You'd be well served to look further into the steps used to treat wastewater.


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