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    Photo credit: Linh H. Nguyen via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Coffee infused foam removes lead from contaminated water

Home / Weird Science
By Andre Gress
@Quantumrun
Nov 01, 2016,  9:07 PM
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Whether you prefer it instant or freshly brewed, there is no secret that coffee is one of the modern day’s most popularly consumed drinks. If you lean more towards a fresh cup of coffee brew, you might afterwards discard the spent grounds or recycle them for either gardening or compost purposes – but now, a team of researchers led by Despina Fragouli have discovered a way to make the most of those leftover grounds! By combining bioelastomeric foam and spent coffee grounds in powder form, they found they could remove 99 percent of lead and mercury in still water. I guess it’s good to know a cup of coffee can do more than get you going or help you pull an all-nighter. In other words, coffee doesn’t just start your day off right – it can also be an alternative to a water purifier.

The Italian Institute of Technology, led by Fragouli, were quoted saying, “The incorporation of spent coffee powder in a solid porous support, without compromising its functionality, facilitates the handling and allows the accumulation of the pollutants into the foams enabling their safe disposal.” What this means is that the combination they created to extract heavy metals from contaminated water can be safely disposed of, if not altered. This is important because it could mean one less pollutant we will unknowingly consume; furthermore, having clean water without the purchase of a water purifier would be ideal. It is clear that Fragouli is dedicated to provide the Earth’s population with a more eco-friendly option to keep drinking water as safely and enjoyably as possible.

Despina: A Brief Bio

Before diving any further into this intriguing discovery, let’s learn a little bit about Despina Fragouli – the leader of this project. After graduating with a B.S. in Physics from the University of Crete in Greece, she submitted a thesis on the “Investigation of photochemical phenomena during ablation of polymers with UV laser[s]”, in which she collaborated with the Foundation of Research and Technology – Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser (FORTH-IESL). In 2002, she received her Master of Science in Applied Molecular Spectroscopy, Department of Chemistry, University of Crete; additionally, she submitted a thesis on “Development of Multispectral Imaging System for the in vivo recording and analysis of the kinetics of the interaction weak acids with tissue: Application on the diagnosis of cancer and pre-cancer distortions”, collaborating again with FORTH-IESL. For more recent information, please click here.

Coffee Grounds: Flexibility in Recycling

American Chemical Society made a study in 2015, which demonstrated that used coffee grounds could increase nutritional density in certain foods. This is intriguing because it means that, aside from water remediation, certain elements of it can be otherwise beneficial to us. The elements in spent grounds are called phenols or antioxidants. Not only can they increase nutritional density, but there is already a high amount of them in spent grounds. It’s amazing to see the sort of innovation arising from what is probably the most globally consumed drink. To know that what you drink every morning is benefitting the world’s health should be as much of an energy boost as the beverage itself!

One little extra fun fact about spent coffee grounds is that they can be used as fertilizer for your garden! The grounds neutralize acidity by adding nitrogen and potassium, and they boost magnesium to the soil and plants. In other words, it strengthens a plant’s immune system and keeps snails and slugs away. Be sure to watch the brief video at the bottom of the page by clicking here.

Simplification of Water Decontamination

The Italian Institute of Technology, which is led by the previously mentioned Despina Fragouli, set out to simplify water decontamination. As discussed earlier, the researchers explained the way used coffee grounds could attract and collect pollutants, such that they could be removed harmlessly and efficiently from within a substance.

According to Nsikan Akpan, this method of water remediation is something scientists have tried to do before. The previous attempts they made at extracting heavy metals from water essentially became “redundant”. They crushed the grounds into a powder, and then mixed it into lead tainted water. Akpan encapsulates this failed attempt at decontaminating water by simply saying, “You need a filter for a filter.” Essentially the components of the mixture were not solid enough to extract the majority of the metals.

What Fragouli and her team did differently is that they chemically infused the spent grounds into elastic foam, such that 60 to 70 percent of the weight was coffee.  Apkan goes on to explain that if they “started with water containing nine parts per million of lead — 360 times higher (for more details on this theory) than most common amount found during the Flint water crisis — the foam could remove a third of the contamination in 30 minutes.” It appears Apkan has a wildly positive outlook for the use of this innovation, and it’s easy to understand why: it would help those in research to see if this method for water remediation could be applied on a much larger scale. However, the effectiveness of this innovation on a grander scale should firstly be considered and validated by Fragouli and the team at the Italian Institute of Technology before big thinkers like Apkan get ahead of themselves.

It still stands that Despina Fragouli and her team have created the most hygienic and solid filtering system for water remediation. Could you imagine what good this could do for countries that can’t afford clean water? The question is where can this method be applied and how wide of a range will it be permitted to do so. Hopefully this becomes a trend amongst scientists and those in charge of their city’s water supply; having clean water may seem like a normal thing, but can be quite the luxury for some people.

Impact (ONLY use the 'Paste From Word' button to safely copy and paste text from a Word doc) 

This vision created by the team at the Italian Institute of Technology shows that there is always someone out there trying to improve not only our health, but also the health of Earth itself. Unfortunately, pollutants are everywhere; fortunately, this does give several opportunities to innovators and scientists to create ways to offer us all a cleaner bill of health.

The impact this project can have on us is immense because having a clean water source for many things – anything from cooking to drinking – is essential. Moreover, it is important to have a clean water source because it is one of the healthiest sources of replenishment. To know that if a parent gives their child a glass of water it could be bad for them is a scary thought. The other effect it could have is the reduction of plastic bottles and use of water filters. Wouldn’t it be great to drink from the tap and know you aren’t consuming heavy metals? In conclusion, Fragouli and her team have done a good deed by creating a great solution to water remediation. Now we are one step closer to healthy drinking!

Public Release Date: 
2016

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