Absorbed in Thought

U of M Sponge research to expand to other pollutants

Artwork by Katie Heywood

Artwork by Katie Heywood

Scientific and environmental communities are abuzz about the product of two years of research: a red sponge. At the Biosensors and Bio-nanotechnology Laboratory of the University of Minnesota, Dr. Abdennour Abbas’ division has discovered a better way to remove mercury from water.

After this success, the team is beginning to look for more ways this deceptively simple concept can soak up other pollutants from our water.

The sponge improves the existing systems to reduce mercury levels. Existing systems require the water to be within a certain pH, which the sponge does not. “The already available technologies like activated carbon,” said graduate student researcher Snober Ahmed, “are not efficient at capturing lower amounts of mercury.” This allows low levels of mercury to build-up to toxic levels with old systems. The sponge has no such issues.

Mercury is hazardous because, “When it goes inside the body, it interacts with selenium containing proteins and makes those proteins inactive,” Ahmed explained. So, the team thought, why not use the selenium binding to protect instead of destroy? The team grows selenium nanoparticles inside the sponge, then water filters through, and the sponge absorbs the mercury, making the final product safe for landfilling.

The project all started with a small idea that was able to pick up financial support from the University. Indeed, “Once we have an idea,” said John Brockgreitens, another graduate student researcher on the team, “we go back to our advisor, our advisor goes back to the University and different funding agencies,” such as MnDrive for this project. The sponge can serve both local community waterways and companies that must clean waste products by regulation.

“We didn’t know when we started that it was going to be so expansive,” said Ahmed. The sponge method can hopefully clean more than just mercury. “We want to target specifically lead, cadmium, phosphate, nitrate, and a whole range of waterborne pollutants,” said Brockgreitens. The mercury research already has a published paper of the results, and the team is excited to explore all of the different avenues for further research.