Nanotechnology has made huge advances possible in a variety of scientific fields, but the average non-scientist may particularly appreciate one of its latest applications – eliminating foul odors. In recent tests conducted by scientists from the University of Florida, copper-coated silica nanoparticles were shown to be up to twice as effective as activated carbon for neutralizing ethyl mercaptan, which is the stinky ingredient in natural gas.

Copper was chosen for its known antibacterial and anti-odor properties. By coating the silica nanoparticles with the metal, its active surface area was maximized – each particle was approximately 1/50,000th the width of a human hair. While it was important to use enough copper to fill all the nanopores on each nanoparticle, it was also found that the introduction of too much copper caused the metal to cluster on the silica surface, which resulted in less odor-elimination.

When exposed to the nanoparticles, the ethyl mercaptan molecules were adsorbed by the copper – this means that they stuck to its surface, as opposed to if they were absorbed, which would mean that they were drawn inside of it. Gas chromatography revealed that the ethyl mercaptan was subsequently catalytically converted into relatively innocuous diethyl disulfide.

While the nanoparticles outperformed activated carbon, even it is far more effective than most room deodorizers, which simply mask odors by outcompeting them with their own scent.

The U Florida researchers believe that the nanoparticles could also be used to remove sulfur contaminants from crude oil, and for fighting harmful bacteria.

The research was recently published in the journal Langmuir.