A flexible platform
When Arshad started working on chicken feathers in 2014, the target contaminant was arsenic. Some 140 million people worldwide are exposed to groundwater that is heavily contaminated with that toxic element, and after completing his PhD in Chemistry at the University of Karachi, he joined Dr. Ullah, Dr. Siddique and their team in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences (ALES) to take it on.
“Dr. Ullah won a Grand Challenges award for pioneering the idea of poultry feathers as a sorbent, and I was eager to be a part of his research,” Arshad says. “We needed solutions that were affordable and could be implemented at small as well as larger scales.”
The team’s progress was swift, and once they succeeded in developing a process that would use modified feathers to remove arsenic, they sought a new challenge. Alberta’s industrial wastewaters –– including tailings ponds –– were an obvious choice.
Arshad was optimistic: “We believed the keratin biopolymers could be used to address a serious environmental problem closer to home, and we were correct.”
Ullah’s team began customizing keratin biopolymers to collect a variety of heavy metal contaminants, and after some initial modifications and refinements the adsorbents can now remove more than 85 percent –– in some cases nearly 100 percent –– of these contaminants in the lab.
When Future Energy Systems launched at the end of 2016, Ullah and Siddique brought their teams into the program’s land and water theme. Their next steps will be to test keratin biopolymers on process-affected water collected from the field, then to further refine them to take on new contaminants from other energy sectors.
After studying the use of microorganisms to remove vinyl chloride gas in groundwater during her Masters in Germany, Zahara joined the team to help develop a greater understanding of how the life cycles of renewable energy technologies will impact water.
“If we develop cost-effective methods for decontaminating water before the new technologies are fully adopted, we can potentially prevent environmental and human impacts before there is ever a risk of them occurring,” she says.
Over the course of her PhD she will identify contaminants related to sources like solar and hydro, then optimize the keratin biopolymers to remove them. She has many years of work ahead, and she’s confident the effort will be worthwhile.
“Renewable energy can improve our environment, and by acknowledging and addressing potential water issues in advance, we can remove barriers to its adoption,” she concludes.
While Zahara continues to work on keratin biopolymers, Arshad’s time as a post-Doctoral fellow is coming to a close. He plans to remain in academia, taking the knowledge and experience he has developed working with chicken feathers to address other pressing environmental issues.
“Land and water reclamation will continue to be a vital area of research and education,” he affirms. “When it comes to our energy sector’s impact on the environment, we have much to learn, and much to change.”