University of South Florida engineering professor Norma Alcantar and her team are using the “flesh” from Prickly Pear cacti, called mucilage, to clean up oil and other toxins from water. With support from the National Science Foundation, Alcantar has spent the last few years confirming something that her grandmother told her years ago — that cacti can purify water.
"This research is a good example of the NSF’s investment in sustainable chemistry which promotes the replacement of expensive and/or toxic chemicals with earth-abundant, inexpensive, and benign chemicals," says Debra Reinhart, program director in the Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems Division of the NSF’s Engineering Directorate. The research is currently funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GOMRI) through the Consortium of Molecular Engineering of Dispersant Systems (C-MEDS).
The objectives of this research are to develop a water purification system based on an economically feasible method of water purification using cactus mucilage for low-income inhabitants of rural communities that are sensitive to existing economic, social, and cultural patterns. This project transcends national boundaries as it includes collaborations between investigators at the University of South Florida, two leading Mexican public universities, and the National Institute of the Environment in Mexico.
The cactus project has been assessed for the rural communities of Temamatla in central Mexico, Port-au-Prince, Haiti post-2010 earthquake, and for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011.
Temamatla is located 25 mi / 40 km southeast of Mexico City and was critical for this study owing to its proximity to volcanic soils where the concentration of heavy metals such as cobalt, mercury, nickel, copper, zinc, iron, manganese, chromium, iodine, arsenic, molybdenum, and lead in local water supplies may be higher than recommended values.
In Haiti, the outcomes of the project were to determine the composition of the ground water beds after the earthquake and evaluate the feasibility of implementing a low cost technology for disaster relief based on cactus mucilage. The cactus mucilage is also able to disperse crude oil efficiently at much lower concentrations than synthetic dispersants.
The broader implications of this project include the multidisciplinary participation of American and Mexican researchers in issues that are relevant to both countries owing to their proximity and preexisting ties. Such collaboration will promote mutual opportunities and infrastructure for research, education, training, networking, future partnerships, and most importantly, the proposed technology will improve current water-related issues and problems in areas of extreme need.