Self-assembled gels have nanoscale ‘solid-like’ networks spanning across a liquid-like phase and are ideally suited for bringing these into intimate contact with polluted solution-phase media in an environmental setting, with the ultimate goal of environmental remediation.
This review explores supramolecular gels as materials for environmental remediation. These soft materials are formed by self-assembling low-molecular-weight building blocks, which can be programmed with molecular-scale information by simple organic synthesis. The resulting gels often have nanoscale ‘solid-like’ networks which are sample-spanning within a ‘liquid-like’ solvent phase. There is intimate contact between the solvent and the gel nanostructure, which has a very high effective surface area as a result of its dimensions. As such, these materials have the ability to bring a solid-like phase into contact with liquids in an environmental setting. Such materials can therefore remediate unwanted pollutants from the environment including: immobilisation of oil spills, removal of dyes, extraction of heavy metals or toxic anions, and the detection or removal of chemical weapons. Controlling the interactions between the gel nanofibres and pollutants can lead to selective uptake and extraction. Furthermore, if suitably designed, such materials can be recyclable and environmentally benign, while the responsive and tunable nature of the self-assembled network offers significant advantages over other materials solutions to problems caused by pollution in an environmental setting.