Tag Archives: European Food Safety Authority

Filtration membranes with twice as much ability to remove unwanted materials from water

A March 26, 2015 news item on Nanowerk offers information about a new method for removing pollutants from water and some insight into the situation regarding bisphenol A (BPA) in Europe,

New types of membrane adsorbers remove unwanted particles from water and also, at the same time, dissolved substances such as the hormonally active bis-phenol A or toxic lead. To do this, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB imbed selective adsorber particles in filtration membranes.

It was not until January 2015 that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) lowered the threshold value for bisphenol A in packaging. The hormonally active bulk chemical is among other things a basic material for polycarbonate from which, for example, CDs, plastic tableware or spectacles glasses are manufactured. Due to its chemical structure, bisphenol A is not completely degraded in the biological stages of treatment plants and is discharged into rivers and lakes by the purification facility.

Activated carbon or adsorber materials are already used to remove chemicals, anti-biotics [sic] or heavy metals from waste or process water. However, a disadvantage of these highly porous materials is the long contact time that the pollutants require to diffuse into the pores. So that as many of the harmful substances as possible are captured even in a shorter time, the treatment plants use larger quantities of adsorbers in correspondingly large treatment basins. However, activated carbon can only be regenerated with a high energy input, resulting for the most part in the need to dispose of large quantities of material contaminated with pollutants.

Also, membrane filtration with nanofiltration or reverse osmosis membranes, which can remove the contaminating substances, is not yet cost-effective for the removal of dissolved molecules from high-volume flows such as process or wastewater. Membranes filter the water through their pores when a pressure is built up on one side of the membrane, thus holding back larger molecules and solid particles. But the smaller the membrane pores are, the higher the pressure – and therefore the more energy – that is required to separate the substances from water.

A March 24, 2015 Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology (IGB) press release, which originated the news item, goes on to describe their team’s new approach,

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Stuttgart have opted for a new approach that combines the advantages of both methods. When manufacturing the membranes they add small, polymeric adsorber particles. The resulting membrane adsorbers can – in addition to their filtration function – adsorptively bind substances dissolved in water. “We make use of the porous structure of the membrane located underneath the separation layer. The pores have a highly specific surface so that as many particles as possible can be imbedded, and they also provide optimum accessibility,” says Dr. Thomas Schiestel, Head of the “Inorganic Interfaces and Membranes” working group at the Fraunhofer IGB.

“Unlike conventional adsorbers, our membrane adsorbers transport the pollutants convectively. This means that, with the water flowing rapidly through the membrane pores, a contact time lasting only a few seconds is sufficient to adsorb pollutants on the particle surface,” says the scientist. Up to 40 percent of the weight of the membrane adsorbers is accounted for by the particles, so their binding capacity is correspondingly high. At the same time the membrane adsorbers can be operated at low pressures. As the membranes can be packed very tightly, very large volumes of water can be treated even with small devices.

Functional adsorber particles

The researchers manufacture the adsorber particles in a one-step, cost-efficient process. In this patented process monomeric components are polymerized with the help of a crosslinking agent to generate 50 to 500 nanometer polymer globules. “Depending on which substances are to be removed from the water, we select the most suitable one from a variety of monomers with differing functional groups,” Schiestel explains. The spectrum here ranges from pyridine, which tends to be hydrophobic, by way of cationic ammonium compounds and includes anionic phosphonates.

Selective removal of pollutants and metals

The researchers were able to show in various tests that the membrane adsorbers remove pollutants very selectively by means of the particles, which are customized for the particular contaminant in question. For example, membrane adsorbers with pyridine groups bind the hydrophobic bisphenol A especially well, whereas those with amino groups adsorb the negatively charged salt of the antibiotic penicillin G.

“The various adsorber particles can even be combined in one membrane. In this way we can remove several micropollutants simultaneously with just one membrane adsorber,” says Schiestel, pointing out a further advantage. Equipped with different functional groups, the membrane adsorbers can also remove toxic heavy metals such as lead or arsenic from the water. Phosphonate membrane adsorbers, for example, adsorb more than 5 grams of lead per square meter of membrane surface area – 40 percent more than a commercially available membrane adsorber.

Cost-effective and regenerable

So that the membrane adsorbers can be used several times, the adsorbed pollutants have to be detached once again from the particles in the membrane. “Membrane adsorbers for bisphenol A can be fully regenerated by a shift of the pH value,” Schiestel explains. The concentrated pollutants can then be disposed off cost-effectively or broken down using suitable oxidative processes.

The regenerability of the membrane adsorbers also makes possible a further application: reutilization of the separated molecules. This additionally makes the technology attractive for recovering valuable precious metals or rare earth metals.

The Fraunhofer IGB is presenting the membrane adsorbers and other innovative technologies for water purification at the “Wasser Berlin International” Trade Fair and Congress from 24th to 27th March 2015 in Berlin. The IGB is in Hall 2.2, Stand 422.

While it’s too late to attend the presentation, here are two links and citations to papers concerning the work,

Removal of micropollutants from water by nanocomposite membrane adsorbers by Klaus Niedergall, Monika Bach, Thomas Hirth, Günter E.M. Tovar, and Thomas Schiestel. Separation and Purification Technology, Volume 131, 27 June 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.seppur.2014.04.032

Nanostructured Composite Adsorber Membranes for the Reduction of Trace Substances in Water: The Example of Bisphenol A by Klaus Niedergall, Monika Bach, Thomas Schiestel, and Günter E.M. Tovar. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., 2013, 52 (39), pp 14011–14018 DOI: 10.1021/ie303264r Publication Date (Web): May 16, 2013

Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

Both articles are behind a paywall.

Food and nanotechnology (as per Popular Mechanics) and zinc oxide nanoparticles in soil (as per North Dakota State University)

I wouldn’t expect to find an article about food in a magazine titled Popular Mechanics but there it is, a Feb. 19,2014 article by Christina Ortiz (Note: A link has been removed),

For a little more than a decade, the food industry has been using nanotechnology to change the way we grow and maintain our food. The grocery chain Albertsons currently has a list of nanotech-touched foods in its home brand, ranging from cookies to cheese blends.

Nanotechnology use in food has real advantages: The technology gives producers the power to control how food looks, tastes, and even how long it lasts.

Looks Good and Good for You?

The most commonly used nanoparticle in foods is titanium dioxide. It’s used to make foods such as yogurt and coconut flakes look as white as possible, provide opacity to other food colorings, and prevent ingredients from caking up. Nanotech isn’t just about aesthetics, however. The biggest potential use for this method involves improving the nutritional value of foods.

Nano additives can enhance or prevent the absorption of certain nutrients. In an email interview with Popular Mechanics, Jonathan Brown, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota, says this method could be used to make mayonnaise less fattening by replacing fat molecules with water droplets.

I did check out US grocer, Albertson’s list of ‘nanofoods’, which they provide and discovered that it’s an undated listing on the Project of Emerging Nanotechnologies’ Consumer Products Inventory (CPI). The inventory has been revived recently after lying moribund for a few years (my Oct. 28, 2013 posting describes the fall and rise) and I believe that this 2013 CPI incarnation includes some oversight and analysis of the claims made, which the earlier version did not include. Given that the Albertson’s list is undated it’s difficult to assess the accuracy of the claims regarding the foodstuffs.

If you haven’t read about nanotechnology and food before, the Ortiz article provides a relatively even-handed primer although it does end on a cautionary note. In any event, it was interesting to get a bit of information about the process of ‘nanofood’ regulation in the US and other jurisdictions (from the Ortiz article),

Aside from requiring manufacturers to provide proof that nanotechnology foods are safe, the FDA has yet to implement specific testing of its own. But many countries are researching ways to balance innovation and regulation in this market. In 2012 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released an annual risk assessment report outlining how the European Union is addressing the issue of nanotech in food. In Canada the Food Directorate “is taking a case-by-case approach to the safety assessment of food products containing or using nanomaterials.”

I featured the FDA’s efforts regarding regulation and ‘nanofood’ in an April 23, 2012 posting,

It looks to me like this [FDA’s draft guidance for ‘nanofoods’] is an attempt to develop a relationship where the industry players in the food industry to police their nanotechnology initiatives with the onus being on industry to communicate with the regulators in a continuous process, if not at the research stage certainly at the production stage.

At least one of the primary issues with any emerging technology revolves around the question of risk. Do we stop all manufacturing and development of nanotechnology-enabled food products until we’ve done the research? That question assumes that taking any risks is not worth the currently perceived benefits. The corresponding question, do we move forward and hope for the best? does get expressed perhaps not quite so baldly; I have seen material which suggests that research into risks needlessly hampers progress.

After reading on this topic for five or so years, my sense is that most people are prepared to combine the two approaches, i.e., move forward while researching possible risks. The actual conflicts seem to centre around these questions, how quickly do we move forward; how much research do we need; and what is an acceptable level of risk?

On the topic of researching the impact that nanoparticles might have on plants (food or otherwise), a January 24, 2013 North Dakota State University (NDSU) news release highlights a student researcher’s work on soil, plants, and zinc oxide nanoparticles,

NDSU senior Hannah Passolt is working on a project that is venturing into a very young field of research. The study about how crops’ roots absorb a microscopic nutrient might be described as being ahead of the cutting-edge.

In a laboratory of NDSU’s Wet Ecosystem Research Group, in collaboration with plant sciences, Passolt is exploring how two varieties of wheat take up extremely tiny pieces of zinc, called nanoparticles, from the soil.

As a point of reference, the particles Passolt is examining are measured at below 30 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.

“It’s the mystery of nanoparticles that is fascinating to me,” explained the zoology major from Fargo. “The behavior of nanoparticles in the environment is largely unknown as it is a very new, exciting science. This type of project has never been done before.”

In Passolt’s research project, plants supplied by NDSU wheat breeders are grown in a hydroponic solution, with different amounts of zinc oxide nanoparticles introduced into the solution.

Compared to naturally occurring zinc, engineered zinc nanoparticles can have very different properties. They can be highly reactive, meaning they can injure cells and tissues, and may cause genetic damage. The plants are carefully observed for any changes in growth rate and appearance. When the plants are harvested, researchers will analyze them for actual zinc content.

“Zinc is essential for a plant’s development. However, in excess, it can be harmful,” Passolt said. “In one of my experiments, we are using low and high levels of zinc, and the high concentrations are showing detrimental effects. However, we will have to analyze the plants for zinc concentrations to see if there have been any effects from the zinc nanoparticles.”

Passolt has conducted undergraduate research with the Wet Ecosystem Research Group for the past two years. She said working side-by-side with Donna Jacob, research assistant professor of biological sciences; Marinus Otte; professor of biological sciences; and Mohamed Mergoum, professor of plant sciences, has proven to be challenging, invigorating and rewarding.

“I’ve gained an incredible skill set – my research experience has built upon itself. I’ve gotten to the point where I have a pretty big role in an important study. To me, that is invaluable,” Passolt said. “To put effort into something that goes for the greater good of science is a very important lesson to learn.”

According to Jacob, Passolt volunteered two years ago, and she has since become an important member of the group. She has assisted graduate students and worked on her own small project, the results of which she presented at regional and international scientific conferences. “We offered her this large, complex experiment, and she’s really taken charge,” Jacob said, noting Passolt assisted with the project’s design, handled care of the plants and applied the treatments. When the project is completed, Passolt will publish a peer-reviewed scientific article.

“There is nothing like working on your own experiment to fully understand science,” Jacob said. “Since coming to NDSU in 2006, the Wet Ecosystem Research Group has worked with more than 50 undergraduates, possible only because of significant support from the North Dakota IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program, known as INBRE, of the NIH National Center for Research Resources.”

Jacob said seven undergraduate students from the lab have worked on their own research projects and presented their work at conferences. Two articles, so far, have been published by undergraduate co-authors. “I believe the students gain valuable experience and an understanding of what scientists really do during fieldwork and in the laboratory,” Jacob said. “They see it is vastly different from book learning, and that scientists use creativity and ingenuity daily. I hope they come away from their experience with some excitement about research, in addition to a better resume.”

Passolt anticipates the results of her work could be used in a broader view of our ecosystem. She notes zinc nanoparticles are an often-used ingredient in such products as lotions, sunscreens and certain drug delivery systems. “Zinc nanoparticles are being introduced into the environment,” she said. “It gets to plants at some point, so we want to see if zinc nanoparticles have a positive or negative effect, or no effect at all.”

Researching nanoparticles the effects they might have on the environment and on health is a complex process as there are many types of nanoparticles some of which have been engineered and some of which occur naturally, silver nanoparticles being a prime example of both engineered and naturally occurring nanoparticles. (As well, the risks may lie more with interactions between nanomaterials.) For an example of research, which seems similar to the NDSU effort, there’s this open access research article,

Low Concentrations of Silver Nanoparticles in Biosolids Cause Adverse Ecosystem Responses under Realistic Field Scenario by Benjamin P. Colman, Christina L. Arnaout, Sarah Anciaux, Claudia K. Gunsch, Michael F. Hochella Jr, Bojeong Kim, Gregory V. Lowry,  Bonnie M. McGill, Brian C. Reinsch, Curtis J. Richardson, Jason M. Unrine, Justin P. Wright, Liyan Yin, and Emily S. Bernhardt. PLoS ONE 2013; 8 (2): e57189 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057189

One last comment, the Wet Ecosystem Research Group (WERG) mentioned in the news release about Passolt has an interesting history (from the homepage; Note: Links have been removed),

Marinus Otte and Donna Jacob brought WERG to the Department of Biological Sciences in the Fall of 2006.  Prior to that, the research group had been going strong at University College Dublin, Ireland, since 1992.

The aims for the research group are to train graduate and undergraduate students in scientific research, particularly wetlands, plants, biogeochemistry, watershed ecology and metals in the environment.  WERG research  covers a wide range of scales, from microscopic (e.g. biogeochemical processes in the rhizosphere of plants) to landscape (e.g. chemical and ecological connectivity between prairie potholes across North Dakota).  Regardless of the scale, the central theme is biogeochemistry and the interactions between multiple elements in wet environments.

The group works to collaborate with a variety of researchers, including soil scientists, geologists, environmental engineers, microbiologists, as well as with groups underpinning management of natural resources, such the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Natural Resources of Red Lake Indian Reservation, and the North Dakota Department of Health, Division of Water Quality.

Currently, WERG has several projects, mostly in North Dakota and Minnesota.  Otte and Jacob are also Co-directors of the North Dakota INBRE Metal Analysis Core, providing laboratory facilities and mentoring for researchers in undergraduate colleges throughout the state. Otte and Jacob are also members of the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium.