Undergrad student research suggests biomass can remove lead from drinking water

Jennifer Desplat (left) and Katelyn Schiffer, both seniors in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, demonstrated with their research that biomass — shrub willow and miscanthus — torrified and ground into fine particles, was very effective at removing lead from water. Credit: Michael Houtz / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Penn State student 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 who specializes in biomass energy production and utilization 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.

From that unusual beginning has grown a research project that will train at least three undergraduate students in research and laboratory procedures and promises to advance the science of removing contaminants from water.

Researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences the last few years 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 do a pretty good job 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."

Researchers have learned that torrifying biomass — essentially roasting it at temperatures approaching 400 degrees 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 also grinding techniques using equipment in a barn at the edge of campus. They used screens to collect various particle sizes to compare.

Schiffer, of Seneca, Pennsylvania, demonstrated that shrub willow, torrified and ground into very fine particles — the finer the better — was very effective at removing lead from water, and she presented a research poster to the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers documenting the findings. Now a senior, she believes the whole endeavor was good for her.

"Research has been a big part of my education because it gave me hands-on experience that I wouldn't have had otherwise — I like research a lot," she said. "As a result of what I learned, I would love to see myself doing research as a job in the future."

The next year, Jenny Desplat, a biorenewable systems major from River Edge, New Jersey, essentially replicated and extended Schiffer's experiments using miscanthus, a robust, warm season grass. It, too, absorbed lead at an impressive rate, and Desplat also presented a research poster at an American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers gathering. 

"I really enjoyed the experience of doing research as an undergrad," said Desplat, who also is a senior now. "I didn't really know what to expect, but the independent aspect of the learning really appealed to me. I have thought about doing some lab work and research in the future, that's definitely a possibility for me."

Ciolkosz pointed out that he intends to have a third undergraduate student do some final experiments in this line of research 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. "We have a student this fall who will fill in a few gaps and round out the data that we have," he said.

The students might not be aware of it, but researchers in Penn State's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering are on the cutting edge of research to make biomass more capable of absorbing contaminants, Ciolkosz said.

"While lead is a common problem in terms of water quality, many other contaminants exist that we might be able to deal with using specially prepared biomass as a renewable, sustainable cleanup material," he noted.

Some types of biomass may be better than others at absorbing contaminants, Ciolkosz said, partly because of their varying amounts of lignin, a complex organic polymer deposited in the cell walls of many plants, especially woody biomass from trees and shrubs. However, more research similar to the project started by Schiffer is needed to know for sure.

Last Updated October 31, 2018