This Northwestern professor is using corn to clean our water: BTN LiveBIG

This Northwestern professor is using corn to clean our water: BTN LiveBIG

The incredible utility of Cyclopure isn’t evident to the naked eye. To look at it, you see only a fine powder, as yellow as the morning sun. But up close – as in microscopically close – you see that those grains have a distinct cup-like shape that helps them do the thing they do.

Developed by Northwestern University professor of chemistry Will Dichtel, Cyclopure is a revolutionary new material that can help strip impurities from wastewater, even that which has been processed through a treatment facility.

“One of the problems with the way we treat our wastewater is that we let through some of the compounds of our lives,” explains Dichtel. “Things like pharmaceutical agents, pesticides or components of our shampoos and personal care products come through our wastewater treatment plants in small amounts, but enough where they could still affect the environment and affect our ability to use the water productively.”

While these molecular cups have been around for some time – they’re used in products such as Febreze – it was Dichtel who recognized their unique ability to purify water. Found in corn, they have a strong natural ability to bind to and capture molecules of contaminants. When linked together to form larger structures, water molecules pass through leaving chemical impurities behind. The molecules can also be rinsed of the contaminants and reused, and, as it is a corn-based product, it is a renewable material.

The problem of chemicals in our municipal water systems has become increasingly apparent in recent years. Dichtel points to the obvious example in Flint, Michigan, where residents, many vulnerable children, have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their water. The crisis is hardly singular, though. Cases of contamination have cropped up in New York, Vermont and North Carolina, to name but a few.

Cyclopure’s corn-derived molecules capture contaminants in water.

In his lab at Northwestern, Dichtel and his team are working on variations of Cyclopure that can target specific contaminants, for use in large-scale cleanups and locations with higher volumes of certain chemicals. They are also working to size the material for different uses.

It’s a job that Dichtel notes he would be hard-pressed to carry out at any other university. “Northwestern is the best place in the world to do chemistry research and research in materials and nanotechnology. They’ve made investments in these areas over the last twenty years that have made it just outstanding. There are amazing colleagues and a real collaborative spirit here. There are facilities and instruments that we have access to that are unavailable at other universities. All of those things together make Northwestern the premier place to do this kind of work.”