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Cactus “flesh” cleans up toxic water

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Posted August 13, 2013

University of South Florida engineering professor Norma Alcantar and her team are using the “flesh” from Prickly Pear cacti, called mucilage, to clean up oil and other toxins from water. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Alcantar has spent the last few years confirming something that her grandmother told her years ago–that cacti can purify water.

Sudipta Seal and Larry Hench are developing a novel process for treating fly ash--a by-product of burning coal--to absorb oil. Fly ash contains a mix of calcium, silicon and aluminum, along with traces of other elements. Although fly ash can be used to make bricks, concrete and road-building materials, millions of tons of the material end up in disposal ponds, mine pits or landfills, where it has the potential to contaminate groundwater. Seal and his team had developed a method of treating fly ash to yield a product called OOPS, which stands for "oil optimized particle surfaces." Unlike untreated fly ash, OOPS attracts and absorbs the oil out of an oil-water mix. The resulting OOPS-oil mixture turns into a glop, which floats on the water surface and can be scooped up very easily. The next thing the researchers tackled was how to dispose of the oil. As they searched for ways to improve OOPS, the team began to realize that their treatment process was actually turning fly ash particles into zeolites--microcrystalline molecules with large surface areas and large pores. In the oil and gas industry, zeolites are used to absorb and filter molecules and catalyze chemical reactions.

Sudipta Seal and Larry Hench are developing a novel process for treating fly ash–a by-product of burning coal–to absorb oil. Fly ash contains a mix of calcium, silicon and aluminum, along with traces of other elements.

“This research is a good example of NSF’s investment in sustainable chemistry which promotes the replacement of expensive and/or toxic chemicals with Earth-abundant, inexpensive and benign chemicals,” says Debra Reinhart, program director in the Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems Division of the NSF’s Engineering Directorate.

The objectives of this research are to develop a water purification system based on an economically feasible method of water purification using cactus mucilage for low-income inhabitants of rural communities that are sensitive to existing economic, social and cultural patterns. The project transcends national boundaries as it includes collaborations among investigators at the University of South Florida, two leading Mexican public universities, and the National Institute of the Environment in Mexico.

Paul Edmiston, a chemistry professor at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, has created a swellable, organically-modified silica, or glass, called "Osorb." It is capable of extracting pollutants like dissolved petroleum and other contaminants from water.

Paul Edmiston, a chemistry professor at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, has created a swellable, organically-modified silica, or glass, called “Osorb.” It is capable of extracting pollutants like dissolved petroleum and other contaminants from water.

The cactus project has been assessed for the rural communities of Temamatla in central Mexico, for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake, and for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011. Temamatla is located 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Mexico City and was critical for this study owing to its proximity to volcanic soils where the concentration of heavy metals such as cobalt, mercury, nickel, copper, zinc, iron, manganese, chromium, iodine, arsenic, molybdenum and lead in local water supplies may be higher than recommended values. In Haiti, the outcomes of the project were to determine the composition of the ground water beds after the earthquake and evaluate the feasibility of implementing a low cost technology for disaster relief based on cactus mucilage. The cactus mucilage is also able to disperse crude oil efficiently at much lower concentrations than synthetic dispersants.

The broader implications of this project include the multidisciplinary participation of American and Mexican researchers in issues that are relevant to both countries owing to their proximity and preexisting ties. Such collaboration will promote mutual opportunities and infrastructure for research, education, training, networking and future partnerships. Most importantly, the proposed technology will improve current water-related issues and problems in areas of extreme need.

Source: NSF

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