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Getting the Lead Out

Undergraduate researchers investigate methods for removing lead from water.

When Katelyn Schiffer got an email notice from her landlord a few years ago warning that she and her apartment mates should not drink water from their unit's taps unless it was filtered to remove lead, the sophomore Agricultural and Biological Engineering major started thinking about the problem.

Shortly after, when she met with a faculty adviser about developing a research project, she decided what she wanted to do--experiment with biomass plant material to learn whether it would be effective in absorbing lead in water.

That unusual beginning has grown into a research project that promises to advance the science of removing contaminants from water.

In the last few years, researchers in the college have been studying the ability of biomass to absorb industrial spills, according to Dan Ciolkosz, assistant research professor of agricultural and biological engineering. He noted that companies often use synthetic products and materials to deal with spills, but biomass seems to be effective at absorbing a variety of liquids that might be found at a spill site.

"We believe it's a good idea to use renewable materials for cleaning up spills, and we think a lot of companies will be interested in that concept," Ciolkosz said. "So, when Katelyn came to us and wanted to do research and happened to mention the situation with water at her apartment, it turned out to be the germ of an idea that led to her research project--to see if biomass can not only absorb spilled material, but maybe even clean it up in the process. We chose to use shrub willow in her experiments."

The team has learned that torrifying biomass--essentially roasting it at temperatures approaching 400°F for an hour or more--and grinding the material into small particles both boost its capacity to absorb contaminants. So Ciolkosz taught Schiffer how to torrify willow branches in an oven in the bioconversion laboratory and to grind them up using equipment in a barn at the edge of campus.

Schiffer, a senior from Seneca, Pennsylvania, demonstrated that shrub willow, torrified and ground into very fine particles, was very effective at removing lead from water. She presented a research poster to the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers documenting the findings.

Jenny Desplat, a senior Biorenewable Systems major from River Edge, New Jersey, replicated and extended Schiffer's experiments using miscanthus, a robust warm-season grass. It, too, absorbed lead at an impressive rate. She also presented a research poster at an American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers gathering.

Ciolkosz intends to have a third undergraduate student do some final experiments investigating biomass absorption of lead from water, and then have the three students' work combined into an article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Some types of biomass may be better than others at absorbing contaminants, Ciolkosz said. However, more research similar to the project started by Schiffer is needed to know for sure.

--Jeff Mulhollem