The latest breakthrough in clean water comes in the form of plants from the driest places on earth—desert cacti. According to a paper presented at the 251st National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the inner mucilage of cacti is a powerful tool for purifying water—both for making safer drinking water, and for creating fish-farm environments that make fish taste better.
Norma Alcantar, PhD, professor at the University of South Florida’s Department of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering in Tampa, explains, “We have tested mucilage to remove contaminants such as sediments, bacteria, and off-flavor compounds separately. We have also looked at its properties as a dispersant of crude oil in fresh and salt water.”
The mucilage, she says, is an effective “flocculant”—it promotes the clustering of contaminants. According to Dr. Alcantar, the mucilage can be used first to coagulate contaminants, and after that, the remaining water can be filtered with a rough filter. As she explains in the press release announcing the discovery, “We found there is an attraction between the mucilage of cactus and arsenic. The mucilage also attracts sediments, bacteria, and other contaminants. It captures these substances and forms a large mass or ‘floc’ that sort of looks like cotton candy. For sediments, the flocs are large and heavy, which precipitate rapidly after the interaction with mucilage.”
This is a discovery that could have far-reaching effects across the world of water purification—particularly because the key product is easy to reproduce.
“The cactus plants used for our extraction are obtained via sustainable agriculture,” Dr. Alcantar says. “They are abundant, fast growing, and they do not require large amounts of water to survive. It is a plant that can easily grow in desert-like environments. The demand for mucilage can be easily covered with sustained growth/harvesting.”
As well, cactus mucilage can be synthesized using polysaccharides from biomass waste. At the moment, she and her team are studying synthesizing mucilage out of waste products.| | | Next → | Single Page
About Jesse Staniforth
Jesse Staniforth is a Montreal-based freelance journalist, writer, and editor covering a variety of different beats. He reports regularly on Indigenous issues for The Nation magazine, serving the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, as well on Information Security issues for SC Magazine. His stories have appeared in a wide variety of other publications, from the Toronto Star and Metro News through AskMen.com and University Affairs. After editing several thousands of pages' worth of food preparation training materials for a hospitality industry group, he grew fascinated with the subject of food safety. Reach him at email@example.com.