P3 @ Radford University


Description and Objective of Research:

Due to population increases and rapid industrialization around the world, water quality and the ability to ensure the availability of reliable clean drinking water will be an increasingly important global concern. The lack of clean water is most keenly felt in developing countries where more expensive water purification technologies are not available. The need for clean water has spurred a variety of research efforts related to the development of new methods and materials for water purification. Our project focused on the development of an inexpensive, multi-functional adsorbent material that will improve existing sand filtration technology to better remove a wide range of water contaminants, including arsenic, other heavy metals, and organic contaminants. The adsorbent is based on our recent discovery of a novel synthetic humic acid-like carbon material (sHAC) that is economical, easy to prepare, and based on renewable starting materials. The overarching goal of this project is to mimic the humic acid found in nature, a natural polyelectrolyte that easily binds to minerals and serves as an excellent chelator of metals in the environment. Our purpose is to overcome the main limitation of natural humic acid variability by synthesizing a highly functionalized humic acid-like material with reproducible chemical composition for use in water purification.

Our Phase I project had four major objectives:

  1. Synthesize and fully characterize a sHAC material with heterogeneous, but defined, chemical structure using renewable starting materials, including sugar and sugar alcohol sources, and a low temperature one-pot synthesis.
  2. Prepare three composite materials, including sHAC/sand, sHAC/iron-coated sand, and sHAC/magnetic iron nanoparticles, and fully characterize these materials.
  3. Investigate the potential of the composite materials to bind arsenic, heavy metals, and a model organic dye in controlled water systems using batch and column methods.
  4. Perform an initial cost/benefit analysis to assess the feasibility for use in the developing world.

Aspects of this project were incorporated as a novel experiment in the Radford University Physical Chemistry course and two students from a regional math and science governor’s school worked on natural extensions of this project for a science fair competition. This research supports the goal of the Environmental Protection Agency to undertake research leading to improved methods of water purification and provide a safe supply of drinking water (EPA; SDWA: Safe Drinking Water Act–Section 1442).