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Limitations and Prospects for Wastewater Treatment by UV and Visible-Light-Active Heterogeneous Photocatalysis: A Critical Review


Heterogeneous photocatalysis (HPC) has been widely investigated in recent decades for the removal of a number of contaminants from aqueous matrices, but its application in real wastewater treatment at full scale is still scarce. Indeed, process and technological limitations have made HPC uncompetitive with respect to consolidated processes/technologies so far. In this manuscript, these issues are critically discussed and reviewed with the aim of providing the reader with a realistic picture of the prospective application of HPC in wastewater treatment. Accordingly, consolidated and new photocatalysts (among which the visible active ones are attracting increasing interest among the scientific community), along with preparation methods, are reviewed to understand whether, with increased process efficiency, these methods can be realistically and competitively developed at industrial scale. Precipitation is considered as an attractive method for photocatalyst preparation at the industrial scale; sol–gel and ultrasound may be feasible only if no expensive metal precursor is used, while hydrothermal and solution combustion synthesis are expected to be difficult (expensive) to scale up. The application of HPC in urban and industrial wastewater treatment and possible energy recovery by hydrogen production are discussed in terms of current limitations and future prospects. Despite the fact that HPC has been studied for the removal of pollutants in aqueous matrices for two decades, its use in wastewater treatment is still at a “technological research” stage. In order to accelerate the adoption of HPC at full scale, it is advisable to focus on investigations under real conditions and on developing/improving pilot-scale reactors to better investigate scale-up conditions and the potential to successfully address specific challenges in wastewater treatment through HPC. In realistic terms, the prospective use of HPC is more likely as a tertiary treatment of wastewater, particularly if more stringent regulations come into force, than as pretreatment for industrial wastewater to improve biodegradability.

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This work is part of a project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 under the Innovative Training Networks (ITN-ETN) programme Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant (ANtibioticS and mobile resistance elements in WastEwater Reuse applications: risks and innovative solutions) agreement no. 675530.

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This article is part of the Topical Collection “Heterogeneous Photocatalysis”; edited by Mario J. Muñoz-Batista, Alexander Navarrete Muñoz and Rafael Luque.

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Iervolino, G., Zammit, I., Vaiano, V. et al. Limitations and Prospects for Wastewater Treatment by UV and Visible-Light-Active Heterogeneous Photocatalysis: A Critical Review. Top Curr Chem (Z) 378, 7 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41061-019-0272-1

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  • Energy recovery
  • Hydrogen production
  • Industrial wastewater
  • Photocatalysis
  • Technology readiness level
  • Urban wastewater