UC researchers develop smarter, solar-powered water filter

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have developed tiny, solar-powered water filters that target and remove carcinogens and antibiotics from lakes and streams.

These protein-based filters are smaller in diameter than a human hair, and work differently than current surface water filters that are made of activated carbon. Those carbon filters work much like the ones in home water filtration systems.

"In Cincinnati, we have one of the largest activated carbon treatment facilities in the United States," says David Wendall, a faculty researcher and environmental engineering professor at UC. "But what the current filters do is bind a lot of different [non-dangerous] compounds; it will will coat the filter very quickly."

UC's research was published in the "Nano Letters" journal. It showed the new filters absorbed 64 percent surface water antibiotics, compared to 40 percent absorbed by current filtering technology.

The research is important because there is growing scientific evidence of harmful effects of the hormones and antibiotics that work their way into our lakes and streams.

"We're starting to understand that birth control is feminizing fish, and antibiotics promote resistance in certain organisms," says Wendall. "It's what is contributing to superbugs that resist to antibiotic treatment. We're learning more about what happens when we dump antibiotics into the environment."

Generally, the contaminates arrive in waterways from runoff through farms or when we flush or trash our medicines.

"The main sources are from farms," Wendall says. "They put antibiotics in animal feed so they will grow fast and stay healthy. But some of their waste ends up in the rivers as runoff, where [the antibiotics] don't break down, and it ends up contaminating our water."

The filter at UC was developed in 2010. Testing has proven successful in specifically targeting antibiotics and other harmful materials.

Wendall describes the filters as "selective garbage disposals." Filtering ability is fueled by sunlight, and the filters actually preserve antibiotics in a way that famers can reuse if filters are recovered.

The university's research is continuing to be tested and refined, Wendall says. But current work could be used practically in three to five years.

By Feoshia H. Davis
Follow Feoshia on Twitter
Signup for Email Alerts