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Professors Share Findings at Research Symposium

‘Electronic’ Tongue, Green Cleaners Featured at Event

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Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. Pradeep Kurup

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Imagine an electronic “tongue” that can detect harmful heavy metals in soil and groundwater. Or a new way of replacing toxic cleaning agents using natural products derived from crab shells, plants and fruits. These are just some of the exciting projects by University researchers recently highlighted during the annual Faculty Research Symposium.

“The symposium showcased and recognized our faculty’s achievements in research, scholarship and creative work,” says Vice Provost for Research Julie Chen. “The awards reception that followed the poster sessions recognized the faculty’s authorship of books and journal articles and accomplishments in fine arts, music and research, as well as funding and patents awarded in fiscal year 2010 to 2011.”

Seventy-six posters from faculty in all six schools and collages were viewed by the nearly 200 people who attended. See photos of this year’s symposium in the UMass Lowell Online Gallery.

A Taste for Danger

“The electronic tongue is a device that mimics the human gustatory system using microelectrode sensor arrays coupled with artificial intelligence for pattern recognition,” says Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. Pradeep Kurup, who is the principal investigator for the project.

“It is designed to ‘taste’ samples on-site and to detect — and identify — heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, chromium, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, selenium, thallium and zinc,” he says.

The project is funded by a three-year $415,859 grant from the National Science Foundation. Asst. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan of Plastics Engineering is the co-principal investigator.

The team aims to develop a testing tool and method that is rapid, safe and cost-effective

“This technology will limit the exposure of lab personnel to contaminated soil and water by avoiding the need for drilling and collecting samples,” says Kurup. “It will also reduce the laborious and time-consuming laboratory analysis during initial site investigations, providing state and federal regulatory agencies with critical information necessary for taking appropriate steps, such as issuing drinking-water advisories to the public in a timely manner.”

The technology can also be expanded to detect other types of toxins, making this approach applicable to diverse fields such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and medical diagnostics, the food industry, environmental monitoring, law enforcement and homeland security, he says.

‘Greener’ Approach to Cleaning

Surfactants are surface-active substances or wetting agents — such as laundry or dish detergents — that help remove dirt, oil, grease, food and other organic compounds from clothes and dishes by making the dirt and oil dissolve more readily in water during washing.

Laundry detergents contain nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), a class of toxic and persistent chemicals that end up in rivers and streams. They have been linked to developmental and reproductive disorders and are suspected of disrupting the body’s hormone system.

“Although NPEs have been phased out of detergents in Europe and Canada, the United States has not yet implemented this requirement,” says Nagarajan, who leads the study.

He and his doctoral student, Ryan Bouldin, in collaboration with Prof. Bridgette Budhlall of Plastics Engineering, are working with Alpha Chemicals of Stoughton to help the company identify a safer alternative to NPEs for its commercial and residential laundry detergents. 

The Toxics Use Reduction Institute has awarded a seed grant of $20,000 to the team to fund its work in determining if bio-based surfactants formulated by the researchers can help eliminate NPEs from laundry operations. These surfactants are synthesized from renewable resources, such as modified chitosan (from shells of crabs and shrimp) and pectin (from the cell walls of plants and fruits).

“Our study will focus on formulating a laundry detergent and testing its efficacy,” says Nagarajan. “We will also compare it to current formulations both here in the U.S. and in Europe.”