William Booth in Smithsonian Magazine:
“I admit it does sound crazy,” says Michael Wong of his idea to use gold to clean up toxic waste. Wong plans to combine gold with palladium—an even more precious metal—to treat polluted groundwater beneath waste dumps and contaminated factories and military sites. “It not only works faster [than current methods], but a hundred times faster,” Wong says, “and I bet it will be cheaper too.”
A golden detergent? Here is Wong’s trick: he creates nanoparticles of gold. In his realm, the work product is measured not in carats but in atoms. A thimbleful of coffee-colored solution contains 100 trillion gold spheres—each only 15 atoms wide, or about the width of a virus. Upon every golden nanosphere, Wong and his team dust a dash of palladium atoms. Think of an infinitely small ice-cream scoop flecked with sprinkles.
The 35-year-old Caltech and MIT graduate says he had not given toxic waste much thought until three years ago when one of his colleagues at Rice University (where he is a recently tenured professor of chemical engineering) came to him and said, “I have a problem,” meaning something interesting to work on.