Professor finds remedy for cleaner drinking water
Roger Acey, a Cal State Long Beach biochemistry and chemistry professor, has found a solution to removing heavy metals from substances based on years of research with brine shrimp, also known as Sea Monkeys, in a process that is both safe and instantaneous.
Acey, a former CSULB graduate student and a high school teacher have been studying the extraction of heavy metal remains.
“We’re looking at technology that’s much more efficient, has a smaller [carbon] footprint, removes only the toxic metals and saves money,” Acey said.
A protein found in brine shrimp, or Artemia salina, when placed on a membrane, is able to bind toxic metals instantaneously as a contaminated solution, such as lead-contaminated water, is passed through it.
The metallothinein-like protein (MT) — a protein capable of binding heavy metals that Acey discovered — binds lead, arsenic and mercury.
The advantage of the discovery is that the biologically essential metals pass right through the membrane, Acey said.
The protein is “safe for the environment. It’s a naturally occurring product,” Acey said. “It’s not like you have another waste product.”
The gene for the protein was cloned from brine shrimp and is then placed into bacteria to produce the protein.
Acey hopes to adapt the technology into a filter for water faucets. He pointed to several Los Angeles schools, whose water has shown unsafe amounts of lead, as a suitor for the technology.
According to Granada Hills Porter Middle School Principal Joyce Edelson, eight of the school’s plumbing fixtures shut off as a result of Los Angeles Unified School District lead testing in early February 2009.
“The eight locations were mostly sinks in science classrooms, sinks in workrooms and only one drinking fountain,” Edelson said. The shutoffs do not affect the school’s drinking water as a whole.
CSULB graduate alumnus Brent Harpham, Whitney High School teacher Mike Mustillo and Acey discovered the protein when they noticed the brine shrimp living in a water solution containing a high level of toxic metal.
“We couldn’t figure out why,” Acey said. “Then we realized that they make a protein that protects them against the toxic metal.”
The protein cannot only bind toxic metals, but it is also able to bind precious metals, such as gold, silver and platinum.
The metals can also be recovered.
“Once you have a membrane with the protein, you can recover the metal by rinsing the membrane in a little bit of vinegar,” Acey said.
Three patents for the technology were granted to Acey, Harpham and Mustillo in 2004, 2006 and 2007.
The patents cover the metal binding, metallothionein (MT); protein sequence; the gene sequence; and the technology of using the membrane-bound MT to remove metal from water, Acey said.
“The patenting process is ongoing and involves every aspect of a process,” Acey said.
He said he has been in talks with the Dow Chemical Co. for the past few weeks to help “scale [the technology] up to a commercial level.”
“We’re trying to adapt this basic biochemistry to some commercial use, that could help people,” Acey said. “We know our technology is as efficient as older technologies for metal remediation. So now we are looking for money to generate a prototype device for removing toxic metal.”
Stephen Mezyk, an associate biochemistry and chemistry professor specializing in drinking and groundwater remediation, said the practical application shows promise.
“We need simple solutions to very complex problems,” Mezyk said. “It’s important to treat the water on the back-end as well as before.”