Heather Shipley, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Burzik Professor in Engineering Design at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), and Kelly Nash, associate professor of physics, have received a $65,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a nanomaterial that can do the work of a water treatment plant.
Shipley's main area of focus is water, and in previous research projects she has worked with nanomaterials that are commercially available. Because Nash's expertise is nanomaterials, the two colleagues chose to collaborate in making a composite of several nanomaterials so that one material could do the work of many.
"We're working to create a nanocomposite material to treat pollutants in water," Shipley said. "This could be used for in-home water treatment, or it could be used in developing countries where the infrastructure for water treatment plants might not exist."
The material the researchers are creating alongside a team of UTSA graduate students is entirely new. It's activated by sunlight, causing organic and heavy metal pollutants to dissolve through light reaction.
"It's doing the job of a water treatment plant, but it also goes a step further," Nash said. "In a plant, there are many processes to catch these pollutants but when you get down into the levels of microbial and toxic metal ions you need a nanomaterial to filter them."
Shipley noted that water sources all over the world are polluted by industrial processes and in various other ways, which makes the water hazardous to use. Rather than focus on one specific pollutant, she and Nash wanted to create a material that could address a majority of them.
"It made sense to create an end-user type of solution instead of create a new type of water treatment plant for a new city," Shipley said. "That way it's accessible and much more feasible, especially in developing areas where there's minimal water treatment."
Shipley and Nash have now been developing the new material for a year and are so far satisfied with its performance, but are now facing a new challenge: making the material reusable.
"Once it's activated by light, it does what it's been designed to do, but then it's done," Nash said. "We don't want to make more waste, so now we're working on making the material regenerate so it can be used again and again."