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Health, Science, Environment

Missouri S&T Students Design A Pocket-Size Filter For People With Contaminated Water

Missouri S&T students Dibbya Barua and Justin Adler look at a water sample taken from Schuman Park Lake in Rolla, Missouri on July 26, 2019.
Sutapa Barua | Missouri University of Science and Technology
Missouri S&T students Dibbya Barua and Justin Adler look at a contaminated water sample taken from Schuman Park Lake in Rolla, Missouri.

Students at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla are building a portable water filter that can help people who lack access to clean water. 

The graduate engineering students are using paper and nano-size silica particles to filter toxins produced by harmful growths of algae. They plan to demonstrate their project at the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Student Design Competition in June at a technology conference. 

Water-filtering technologies that exist on the market are often complicated and inaccessible to remote, rural communities that need them the most, said Sutapa Barua, a Missouri S&T chemical engineering professor who advises the students. 

“We were thinking about making something handy, so our filter is portable. Someone can fold it and then take it with them in their pockets,” Barua said. “So the whole idea is they [can] use the filter anywhere.” 

The federal agency awarded the Missouri S&T team $25,000 to develop the filter. 

The students aim to filter out toxins that come from cyanobacteria. It’s a type of bacteria found in toxic algal blooms that can occur when excessive agricultural or urban stormwater runoff enters lakes, streams and rivers. Exposure to these toxins is a major public health problem, Barua said. 

“When toxins come into the body, they can create septic shock. And that can be lethal," she said, especially for people whose immune systems are compromised. 

Barua’s laboratory focuses on using nanotechnology — working with particles so small that they can’t be seen with the naked eye — to build devices that can deliver drugs and diagnose cancer. She discovered that some of the polymers in her lab were extremely effective at purifying water and then had graduate students work with the material to develop a filtration device. 

“I didn’t begin thinking about water purification,” Barua said. “These polymers were so effective at removing these toxins, and we don’t know why exactly. And so we looked into it, and that’s when it clicked in my mind, I think it would be an important technology to deliver safe water.” 

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