NMR spectroscopy of wastewater: A review, case study, and future potential
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NMR spectroscopy is arguably the most powerful tool for the study of molecular structures and interactions, and is increasingly being applied to environmental research, such as the study of wastewater. With over 97% of the planet's water being saltwater, and two thirds of freshwater being frozen in the ice caps and glaciers, there is a significant need to maintain and reuse the remaining 1%, which is a precious resource, critical to the sustainability of most life on Earth. Sanitation and reutilization of wastewater is an important method of water conservation, especially in arid regions, making the understanding of wastewater itself, and of its treatment processes, a highly relevant area of environmental research. Here, the benefits, challenges and subtleties of using NMR spectroscopy for the analysis of wastewater are considered. First, the techniques available to overcome the specific challenges arising from the nature of wastewater (which is a complex and dilute matrix), including an examination of sample preparation and NMR techniques (such as solvent suppression), in both the solid and solution states, are discussed. Then, the arsenal of available NMR techniques for both structure elucidation (e.g., heteronuclear, multidimensional NMR, homonuclear scalar coupling-based experiments) and the study of intermolecular interactions (e.g., diffusion, nuclear Overhauser and saturation transfer-based techniques) in wastewater are examined. Examples of wastewater NMR studies from the literature are reviewed and potential areas for future research are identified. Organized by nucleus, this review includes the common heteronuclei (13C, 15N, 19F, 31P, 29Si) as well as other environmentally relevant nuclei and metals such as 27Al, 51V, 207Pb and 113Cd, among others. Further, the potential of additional NMR methods such as comprehensive multiphase NMR, NMR microscopy and hyphenated techniques (for example, LC-SPE-NMR-MS) for advancing the current understanding of wastewater are discussed. In addition, a case study that combines natural abundance (i.e. non-concentrated), targeted and non-targeted NMR to characterize wastewater, along with in vivo based NMR to understand its toxicity, is included. The study demonstrates that, when applied comprehensively, NMR can provide unique insights into not just the structure, but also potential impacts, of wastewater and wastewater treatment processes. Finally, low-field NMR, which holds considerable future potential for on-site wastewater monitoring, is briefly discussed. In summary, NMR spectroscopy is one of the most versatile tools in modern science, with abilities to study all phases (gases, liquids, gels and solids), chemical structures, interactions, interfaces, toxicity and much more. The authors hope this review will inspire more scientists to embrace NMR, given its huge potential for both wastewater analysis in particular and environmental research in general.
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