Beyond Brita

Beyond Brita

Heavy metal contaminants in the water supply can lead to developmental disabilities, organ damage and even cancer in humans. But new research on campus points to a more effective, economical and environmentally friendly way to remove toxic metals from our water.

It turns out that alginate—a biopolymer derived from brown algae—happens to be great at binding to metals. The only problem? Alginate dissolves in water. So Matt Cathell, assistant professor of technological studies, and a team of students have been working on some pretty creative engineering to create alginate filters that can hold up against the very thing they’re trying to clean.

Here’s how the technology works: Cathell and his students dissolve a powdered form of alginate in an aqueous solution, then eject that solution through an electrical field. The process results in alginate nanofibers—some just 1/1000th the diameter of a human hair—which accumulate to form a porous, meshlike membrane. Calcium ions are then added to make the nanofibers insoluble in water. As contaminated water flows through the membranes, heavy metal ions bind to the alginate and can then be safely removed. The technology, which has proven to be more effective and efficient than traditional activated carbon filters (think Brita) has great potential for cleaning the water coming from your kitchen sink, as well as the world’s water supply. Plus, it’s reusable, it’s cheap, and it’s sustainable. In fact, millions of metric tons of brown algae grow each day. Here’s a look at our lives in water—and why the TCNJ technology holds such potential.


Illustration by Infomen


WHY IT MATTERS: The H2O Breakdown

What you need to know about a few of the extras that could be in your glass.

LEAD can stunt physical and mental development in children and cause kidney damage and high blood pressure in adults. It can leach into the water supply through corroding lead pipes, often found in older homes.

MERCURY, which can cause kidney damage, sneaks into the water supply through runoff, the erosion of natural deposits and discharge from a variety of sources, including factories, coal-fired power plants, refineries and incinerators.

ARSENIC exposure can damage skin and organs, cause problems to the circulatory and nervous systems, and lead to increased cancer risk. It can enter the water supply through the erosion of natural deposits, industrial and agricultural pollution, and runoff.

CADMIUM, which makes its way into the water system from the erosion of natural deposits, corrosion of galvanized pipes and discharge from refineries, causes kidney and bone damage.

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