UAE students suggest using cotton to clean industrial wastewater

In a bid to make the UAE more sustainable and environmentally-friendly, a group of students and a supervising professor from the American University Sharjah (AUS) have come up with an innovative way to clean waste water from industrial plants – using simple cotton.

The student’s research focuses on the use of chemically modified cotton fibres to remove heavy metals, such as mercury or lead, from polluted water. The materials are designed to be efficient, fast, economical and sustainable solutions to address the contamination of waste water, such as that created by industrial facilities or caused by natural disasters.

The students – Aya Hossam El-Din Mustafa and Mohammed Seif Al-Dawla Mohammed – have already been honoured for their work, having won the Best Outstanding Team award at the Sharjah Sustainability Awards held in April.

“We were trying to come up with solutions for waste water treatment, especially waste water that comes from industrial zones that has a high concentration of heavy metals,” explained Dr Mohammed Al Sayah, Professor of Biology, Chemistry and Environment Science of AUS’ College of Arts and Sciences. “Water in the GCC is an expensive commodity to have.”

According to Dr Al Sayah, cotton is just one of the materials available in the Gulf that could be used to clean waste water, but noted that it is vital to chemically modify the fibers.

“Modifying the fibre depends on the targeted materials,” he noted. “The cotton is cellulose based polymer. We modify it to bind the metals, and this modification turns the cotton into a ‘sponge’ that can absorb metal from the waste water.”

“Once we remove the cotton fibres from the waste water, it takes with it the heavy metals,” he added.

Such a method, Dr Al Sayah noted, is cheaper and more sustainable than other alternatives that are currently available.

“The whole point is aiming to use naturally available fibres like cotton and others,” he said. “This way, we don’t have to use synthetic polymers. It doesn’t cost a lot, and it’s more environmentally friendly.”

“If we need more, it’s available in nature, and we can recover the metal and use the fiber again,” he added. “It’s more likely to be biodegradable.”

Looking to the future, Dr Al Sayah said the team is already having “early results with other fibers which are more relevant to the area, especially the UAE and the Gulf.”

“We’re hoping to get some functional prototypes to work with.”

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