Confined Flocculation of Ionic Pollutants by Poly(l‑dopa)-Based Polyelectrolyte Complexes in Hydrogel Beads for Three-Dimensional, Quantitative, Efficient Water Decontamination

The development of simple and recyclable adsorbents with high adsorption capacity is a technical imperative for water treatment. In this work, we have successfully developed new adsorbents for the removal of ionic pollutants from water via encapsulation of polyelectrolyte complexes (PECs) made from positively charged poly­(allylamine hydrochloride) (PAH) and negatively charged poly­(l-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine) (PDopa), obtained via the self-polymerization of l-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine (l-Dopa). Given the outstanding mass transport through the hydrogel host matrixes, the PDopa-PAH PEC guests loaded inside can effectively and efficiently remove various ionic pollutants, including heavy metal ions and ionic organic dyes, from water. The adsorption efficiency of the PDopa-PAH PECs can be quantitatively correlated to and tailored by the PDopa-to-PAH molar ratio. Because PDopa embodies one catechol group, one carboxyl group, and one amino group in each repeating unit, the resulting PDopa-PAH PECs exhibit the largest capacity of adsorption of heavy metal ions compared to available adsorbents. Because both PDopa and PAH are pH-sensitive, the PDopa-PAH PEC-loaded agarose hydrogel beads can be easily and completely recovered after the adsorption of ionic pollutants by adjusting the pH of the surrounding media. The present strategy is similar to the conventional process of using PECs to flocculate ionic pollutants from water, while in our system flocculation is confined to the agarose hydrogel beads, thus allowing easy separation of the resulting adsorbents from water.