Abdennour Abbas, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Sciences, is working to solve the problem of mercury contamination in water.
Mercury is a naturally-occurring metal that forms within the Earth’s crust. High levels of it are toxic and has been known to contaminate water across the globe.
The effects can be significant. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, mercury exposure can impact people of all ages, harming a person’s brain, heart, kidneys and immune system if they ingest too much.
Abbas has studied mercury, both in local water sources and all around the world. Along with a team of researchers, Abbas has created a solution to remove mercury from drinking water. Just as an everyday sponge absorbs liquid on a kitchen counter, Abbas created a sponge that absorbs mercury from water. The method is not only effective in limiting the effects of the dangerous metal, but is also is an affordable solution.
“The way we do it in my lab is that we try to solve any problem in the most cost-effective way. Because you can develop very interesting technologies that can fix the problem, but at high costs,” Abbas said. “The idea was to develop something that is cheap and is easy to use, and doesn’t require a lot of capital investment. So we thought, why not convert a sponge into a tool that can clean water from mercury?”
Minnesota is, of course, The Land of 10,000 Lakes, so Abbas and his team had plenty of places to test and hone their product. Using nano-technology to enhance the materials of a standard sponge, the device acts similar to a magnet, attracting the mercury from the water. Once the product enters the liquid, the mercury connects to the selenium within the sponge, leaving clean water behind.
The nano-sponge works effectively and quickly. Tap or lake water can go from containing toxic levels of mercury to below detectable limits in less than five seconds after the sponge is inserted. For industrial wastewater, it takes around five minutes. That’s far less time than other mercury removal methods.
“We thought the sponge would work, but we didn’t expect it would work with such efficiency,” Abbas said. Additionally, the product converts the contamination it extracts into a non-toxic form, allowing researchers to dispose of the sponges in a landfill after they have been used.
The researchers also focused on making a product that would work well for a large group of people. Businesses spend millions of dollars every year to remove mercury from their industrial wastewater. In Minnesota specifically, there are strict regulations on how much mercury can be funneled into the Mississippi River, giving companies an even greater incentive to remove the dangerous chemicals. And in parts of South America, such as Peru, many citizens are feeling the impact of ingesting the mercury-filled water in the Amazon.
All those different audiences need a device that can easily and affordably remove mercury. Abbas believes his product is the one to do it. He and his researchers are now working on a household, hand-operated version of the sponge that can be distributed to countries around the world to fix the toxic water problem.
“Clean water is a big problem and it’s a growing problem,” said Abbas. “Not only in the U.S., but everywhere. We are having a very big problem getting clean water to people. So it was obvious that if we want to do some research, that this was one of the most important topics we needed to deal with.”