Sometimes the best innovations aren’t about finding the most technologically advanced solutions, but merely looking at the problem differently.
In arid regions throughout the world, the problem is simple: inadequate ground and surface water supplies force people to undergo hardship even where sufficient rain falls. A group called PITCHAfrica has part of the solution.
The world is awash in antibiotics. We take them to fight off the bacteria that mean to colonize us. We feed them to animals to prevent the outbreak of disease in densely packed factory-farming operations. Even many of our cleaning and body care products, controversially, now contain them.
But many antibiotics don’t get fully metabolized within humans or animals and, through excretion, find their way into waste and surface waters. It’s a major environmental concern whose full ecological implications still aren’t clear.
And the problem creates a vicious cycle. Evolution gives our microbial adversaries the strategic advantage—the ability to adapt to our weapons and render them harmless. So we engage in a microscopic arms race, battering increasing numbers of antibiotic-resistant bugs with more and more drug compounds to keep them at bay.
So you could call it a small case of poetic justice when researchers figure out how to use the cellular machinery that renders some bacteria drug-resistant to reclaim antibiotics from contaminated water.
For those working to clean up some of the worst water pollutants on Earth, gold and palladium might be getting considerably more precious.
Rice University researchers have been working with the metals for a decade to figure out a way to efficiently destroy complex chemical pollutants. They have announced that the fruit of their labor is a technology called PGClear that they say can quickly decontaminate groundwater. Scientists from Rice, Stanford University and DuPont collaborated on the work, which will first be installed in June at a DuPont plant in Kentucky.
At its heart, the system uses pellets formed from a combination of the two metals. The pellets act as a catalyst to break down persistent cancer-causing industrial solvents like vinyl chloride, trichloroethene and chloroform into nontoxic methane and salt byproducts.