Metal Removal and Retrieval Using a Biological Engineering Approach and Designed for Environmental Stewardship and Economic Impact

Project Summary

Research Advisor:  Blaine Pfeifer (Chemical and Biological Engineering) 

Project Theme:  Pollutant Source Control

Water metal contamination is a ubiquitous problem due to the many industrialized processes that drive our economy.  Examples include mining drainage, metal plating, semiconductor fabrication, and solar cell production.  These examples straddle well-established and emerging industries but each pose significant environmental impact due to metal contamination potential.  Furthermore, the loss of the associated metals carries an economic consequence as un-recovered material represents a significant missed opportunity in raw material utilization.  The purpose of this project is to solve the aforementioned environmental and economic problems that arise from loss of metals through industrialized processes.  By doing so, the technology directly aligns with the vision of a “bio-based economy” (since our approach leverages biotechnology to produce a metal-binding compound) and “green manufacturing.”  The latter term particularly resonates with the history of the Buffalo, Western New York, and Great Lakes region, and we will leverage our geographic location and the strong recent developments in New York State start-up opportunities to implement a business plan based upon wastewater metal recovery and re-use.  

Our group has designed a heterologous production system for generating a small molecule natural product capable of binding metal compounds with high affinity.  Furthermore, we have recently devised a way to adsorb this compound and associated analogs to a solid matrix which enables a heterogeneous means of removing metal content from contaminated water samples.  In this REU project, we seek students to assist in building laboratory-scale prototype systems that incorporate our activated resin within a flow column such that we can demonstrate a continuous metal removal process using actual wastewater from a near-by metal plating manufacturing company.  Due in part to the commercial interest exhibited by this and other potential partners, our group has been encouraged to establish a start-up company based upon this technology.  Hence, students involved with this project will be exposed to both basic and applied science and engineering in the context of water-based metal removal and recovery. 

Primary Activities:  Wastewater sample analysis, small-scale cellular culture, industrial design and outreach

Skills/Courses Recommended:  General chemistry; interest in or experience with process engineering; microbiology and/or molecular biology; economics.

Anticipated Conference Participation:  American Chemical Society; Great Lakes Research Consortium