Removal of heavy metal ions such as copper using an efficient and low-cost method with low ecological footprint is a critical process in wastewater treatment, which can be achieved in a liquid phase using nanoadsorbents such as inorganic nanoparticles. Recently, attention has turned toward developing sustainable and environmentally friendly nanoadsorbents to remove heavy metal ions from aqueous media. Electrosterically stabilized nanocrystalline cellulose (ENCC), which can be prepared from wood fibers through periodate/chlorite oxidation, has been shown to have a high charge content and colloidal stability. Here, we show that ENCC scavenges copper ions by different mechanisms depending on the ion concentration. When the Cu(II) concentration is low (C0≲200 ppm), agglomerates of starlike ENCC particles appear, which are broken into individual starlike entities by shear and Brownian motion, as evidenced by photometric dispersion analysis, dynamic light scattering, and transmission electron microscopy. On the other hand, at higher copper concentrations, the aggregate morphology changes from starlike to raftlike, which is probably due to the collapse of protruding dicarboxylic cellulose (DCC) chains and ENCC charge neutralization by copper adsorption. Such raftlike structures result from head-to-head and lateral aggregation of neutralized ENCCs as confirmed by transmission electron microscopy. As opposed to starlike aggregates, the raftlike structures grow gradually and are prone to sedimentation at copper concentrations C0≳500 ppm, which eliminates a costly separation step in wastewater treatment processes. Moreover, a copper removal capacity of ∼185 mg g(-1) was achieved thanks to the highly charged DCC polyanions protruding from ENCC. These properties along with the biorenewability make ENCC a promising candidate for wastewater treatment, in which fast, facile, and low-cost removal of heavy metal ions is desired most.
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