Nutritional science researcher developing a new water filtration device

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High-profile food recalls due to disease outbreaks such as Salmonella highlight a persistent problem for agriculture: contaminated irrigation water.

The water used by farmers for irrigating crops is often recycled wastewater. This environmentally friendly practice reduces water demand and recycles nutrients, which promotes healthy soils and prevents pollutants from entering our waterways. However, this practice carries a significant health risk. Not all water is equally clean, and existing disinfection practices do not catch all waterborne pathogens.

Yangchao Luo, Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences at College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, received a $ 200,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture to create biopolymer beads to clean wastewater so that it can be used safe for agricultural irrigation.

For over a century, people have used sand to catch dirt particles and chlorine as a disinfectant as a proven method of eliminating water-borne illnesses from drinking water.

Recently, there have been surprisingly high rates of water-borne illnesses in the United States. These diseases are caused by parasites such as Cryptosporidium, which can cause diarrhea and dehydration, legionella and severe respiratory infections, and Salmonella.

Many of these infections are associated with contaminated agricultural irrigation water. If there are contaminants in the irrigation water, they are found in the plants that humans and animals eat. This problem shows to what extent traditional water treatment methods do not protect consumers.

With this grant, Luo will meet this challenge with a next-generation engineering solution that leverages advances in biopolymer research. He will develop a new filtration device using functional biopolymer hydrogel beads to remove chemical and biological pollutants from wastewater. Luo is collaborating with Jie He, associate professor of chemistry and Co-PI on this project.

Biopolymers are natural polymers produced by the cells of living organisms. The linking of these polymers creates very porous hydrogels. These biopolymer beads can disinfect water without creating dangerous chemical byproducts like traditional methods, like chlorine disinfection do.

These hydrogels have been shown to effectively remove chemical contaminants such as dyes, heavy metals and organics from contaminated water. The beads have nanoscale pores that absorb physical contaminants when they come into contact. Magnetizing the beads also allows them to capture metals.

Chitosan, which Luo will use, is the biopolymer derived from chitin found in the cells of crustaceans. Chitosan has natural antimicrobial properties, making it an ideal candidate for water treatment devices.

Luo and He will experiment with modifying the surface properties of chitosan beads to find the optimum porosity for the types of contaminants present in wastewater intended for use as irrigation water.

They will endow these beads with superior antimicrobial properties that will allow them to kill pathogens in wastewater. Antimicrobial potency is made possible by chemical modification and engineering approaches to induce strong reactions with negatively charged microbial membranes.

Through this project, researchers will develop a functional prototype of this device. The device will be affordable and biodegradable, making it an attractive, efficient and sustainable option for the future of water treatment.

USDA NIFA Award No. 2021-67022-34415

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