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Your Environment. Your Health.

Developing New Membranes to Capture and Destroy Contaminants

Dibakar Bhattacharyya, Ph.D.

August 21, 2020

Dibakar Bhattacharyya, Ph.D.

Bhattacharyya is the University of Kentucky Alumni Chair Professor of Chemical and Materials Engineering, Fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and North American Membrane Society, and Director of the UK Center of Membrane Sciences.
(Photo courtesy of University of Kentucky)

For over 50 years, Dibakar Bhattacharyya, Ph.D., (known collegially as DB) has been a leader in engineering specialized membranes to capture pollutants in water. He leads a project at the University of Kentucky Superfund Research Program (UK SRP) Center, funded by NIEHS for the last 20 years, focused on developing novel functionalized membrane materials that can both capture and break down harmful pollutants.

DB was born and raised in Jhingra, India, a small village in West Bengal outside Kolkata. One of eight children, DB developed an early appreciation for the crucial role of access to clean water for public health and prosperity.

“Growing up in a remote village in India with no running water and limited electricity, I learned to appreciate the value of pond and river water, and wanted to know more about water purification for things like microbes and viruses,” DB said.

After completing his undergraduate training in chemical engineering at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, he joined the graduate program at Northwestern University. He continued to earn a Ph.D. in environmental engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where his research focused on removing toxic metals from water.&

SRP Paves the Way for Innovative Approaches

Over the years, DB developed a variety of novel materials to capture pollutants and break them down into non-toxic forms, particularly chlorinated contaminants like trichloroethylene (TCE) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Unlike traditional passive membranes, the functionalized membranes developed by DB and his team can interact with the target particles by selectively binding to specific contaminants and altering their chemical structure to break them down.

“At the UK SRP Center, I interact with top investigators from different disciplines, collaborating with faculty and students in toxicology, nutrition, and health,” said DB. “This allows me to expand on traditional membranes and water treatment technologies to do something new and exciting.” 

For example, he designed and tested nanostructured metals that can degrade TCE and PCBs to improve in water quality. DB and his collaborators created new techniques to synthesize these nanoparticles directly in the functionalized pores of the membranes, creating a compact and flexible technology that uses resources more efficiently than traditional approaches. They found that the technology degraded TCE to non-toxic ethane and removed chlorine atoms from PCBs.

He also developed dual function responsive membranes to capture and degrade TCE, PCBs, and other chlorinated contaminants. The team incorporated polymers, biological compounds, and functional groups on the surfaces of the membranes to remove chlorinated organic contaminants from groundwater and break them down into non-toxic products. Their approach offered significant improvements on traditional approaches, which can result in breakdown products that are more toxic than the parent compounds and often involve the use of acids and other harmful chemicals.

DB collaborated with Akram Alshawabkeh, Ph.D., at the Northeastern University SRP Center, to develop an efficient, low-maintenance groundwater cleanup technology to remove chlorobenzene and other compounds from water. The team combined electrochemical oxidation, which uses electricity to transform contaminants into non-toxic substances, and membranes containing palladium, a metal used as a catalyst, to explore the optimal conditions and techniques for capturing the harmful chemicals.

DB credits the SRP’s approach with valuable external collaborations that have moved his research forward. For example, he has worked with researchers at the Northeastern University SRP Center, the Singapore Membrane Technology Centre, Arcadis, Solecta, Chevron Corporation, and others.

As his work continued to evolve, DB and his team created temperature responsive membranes that capture perfluorooctanoic acid in water. SRP trainees, undergraduate students, and UK SRP Center researchers from three different disciplines worked together to develop the new treatment process, which has a U.S. patent application pending.

“Research collaboration has no boundaries,” said DB. “The SRP model of transdisciplinary science has been instrumental in linking approaches to reduce contaminants in the environment with approaches to reduce the toxicity of those contaminants.”

Leveraging NIEHS-Funded Technologies to Address COVID-19

DB and his multidisciplinary team are now leveraging their decades of experience to develop a sophisticated antiviral membrane mask to capture and deactivate on contact SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Dibakar Bhattacharyya, Ph.D., in the lab with a large sheet of membrane.

Bhattacharyya in the lab with a large sheet of membrane, developed in collaboration with Solecta, which may go into his COVID-19 face mask project.
(Photo courtesy of Ben Corwin, University of Kentucky)

“The novel coronavirus is covered in club-shaped ‘s-protein’ spikes, which give it its crownlike, appearance,” said DB. “The protein spikes allow the virus to enter host cells once in the body. This new membrane will include enzymes that will attach to the protein spikes and deactivate them, killing the virus.”

He is collaborating with researchers in diverse disciplines across UK. He and his team secured $150,000 in grant funding from the National Science Foundation RAPID program to develop the masks.

“We have the capability to create a membrane that would not only effectively filter out the novel coronavirus like the N95 mask does, but deactivate the virus completely,” said DB. “This innovation would further slow and even prevent the virus from spreading. It would also have future applications to protect against a number of human pathogenic viruses.”

Training the Next Generation of Scientific Leaders

Derek Wan, a trainee in Bhattacharyya’s lab, accepts a best poster award from SRP Director Bill Suk, Ph.D.

Derek Wan, a trainee in Bhattacharyya’s lab, accepts a best poster award from SRP Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., at the 2017 SRP Annual Meeting.
(Photo courtesy of UK SRP Center)

Over the course of his career, DB has mentored hundreds of engineering students, particularly trainees with the UK SRP Center. His approach helps guides student to develop the skills and tools they need to be successful independent researchers.

“My main passion is to make students highly successful through transdisciplinary training,” DB said. “This approach prepares them to lead the field in cleaning up contaminants in the environment and to have an impact on society.”

Through the UK SRP Center, trainees have diverse opportunities to become interdisciplinary thinkers and effective communicators. By integrating experiences across disciplines, promoting research translation and community engagement, and providing unique externship opportunities, SRP trainees are equipped to tackle pressing and emerging environmental health challenges.

“The SRP approach allows trainees, researchers, industry scientists, and others to work together,” DB added. “Many of our trainees have published in high impact journals, and I couldn’t be more proud of their accomplishments.”

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