Ivy Tech professor heads international research on using cilantro as a water purifier

A favorite ingredient in Mexican, Southeast Asian and other spicy cuisine may be an inexpensive new way of purifying drinking water. Cilantro, a favorite ingredient in salsas and other dishes, can absorb heavy metals from water, making it usable for drinking and irrigation.

Reporting on research done by Ivy Tech Community College students, Douglas Schauer, Ph.D., said that cilantro — also known as coriander and Thai parsley — shows promise as a much-needed new “biosorbent” for removing lead and other potentially toxic heavy metals from contaminated water.  Dr. Schauer reported his findings at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, held in Indianapolis last week.

“Cilantro may seem too pricey for use in decontaminating large amounts of water for drinking and cooking,” Schauer said. “However, cilantro grows wild in vast amounts in countries that have problems with heavy metal water pollution. It is readily available, inexpensive and shows promise in removing certain metals, such as lead, copper and mercury, that can be harmful to human health.”

Conventional methods for removing heavy metals from water such as treatment with activated carbon (used in the filters in home water purification pitchers) or more advanced technology like ion-exchange resins are very effective. However, they can be too expensive for use in developing countries, especially in rural areas. The need for lower-cost, sustainable alternatives has fostered research on biosorbents. These natural materials, which range from microbes to plants, latch on to heavy metals in ways that include both absorption and adsorption.

“Our goal is to find biosorbents that people in developing countries could obtain for nothing,” Schauer explained. “When the filter in a water purification pitcher needs to be changed, they could go outside, gather a handful of cilantro or some other plant, and presto, there’s a new filter ready to purify the water.”

Schauer, who is Chair of the Chemical Technology program at Ivy Tech, enlisted his students in that quest, and they worked with scientists at the Universidad Politecnica de Francicso I. Madero in Hidalgo. Mexico does not have a system to filter out heavy metals, said Schauer, noting that cilantro grows wild there. Their small-scale experiments suggested that cilantro may be more effective than activated carbon in removing heavy metals such as lead.

Cilantro’s secret may lie in the structure of the outer walls of the microscopic cells that make up the plant. They have an architecture ideal for sorption of heavy metals. Other plants, including cilantro’s cousins, parsley and culantro, have similar features and could potentially work as biosorbents, he added. Schauer thinks that biosrbents like cilantro could be packed into tea-bag-like packets, reusable water filter cartridges or even tea infuser balls and used to remove heavy metals.

Schauer and his team cited a grant through the Lilly Foundation for instrumentation and a Perkins grant in support of the Chemical Technology and Biotechnology Programs, also used for instrumentation.

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