EPA's Nancy Stoner visits USF
Nancy Stoner, the EPA's acting assistant administrator for water, visited three labs during her visit to USF on March 27. Photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

Scientists at the University of South Florida (USF) have developed a new device that can detect contamination and purify polluted water in just a few hours, the Tampa Tribune has reported.

The innovative technology can detect even low levels of microbial pathogens, like E. coli for example, and can extract them before they cause any threat to human health or to the environment. The device can be used to sanitize wastewater, beaches or even food products, the engineers behind the project explained.

However, what USF researchers are trying to do is go one step further and not just remove pollutants but also use them to create energy by capturing ammonia and phosphate. The potential benefits from the project are immense and this was one of the main reasons why a senior official visited USF last week to see how the device worked. During her visit to the university, Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced a federal plan to encourage technology innovation that could help solve water resource issues. What is happening inside laboratories is a good thing but the innovations need to be taken out and used to solve real problems, she stated.

Professor Daniel Yeh, leader of the USF research team, took Stoner and the other officials visiting the site, including Jeffrey Eger, executive director of industry group Water Environment Federation, to demonstrate how the technology worked and to provide them with an update of its development. Yeh explained that wastewater could either be treated as a problem or as an opportunity, and announced that his team was working on producing biofuel from microalgae extracted from wastewater. Yeh believes that wastewater treatment plants should be refocusing to extend their operations to producing biofuel from nutrients taken from the water they treat, the Tampa Tribune noted.

The technology could be used for a number of purposes. One of the possible applications is to test water that is used for rinsing food products, such as lettuce or spinach at processing facilities. Microbiology professor Daniel Lim showed the visiting officials how the Portable Multi-Use Automated Concentration System worked by detecting contaminants in rinse water, thus protecting the public from a potential outbreak. The device could also be used to monitor drinking water supplies, as well as water in rivers, streams and other water bodies, engineers said. The Portable Multi-Use Automated Concentration System can find any unhealthy levels of bacteria within hours, so that urgent measures could be taken to protect public health and the environment. The device could bring major benefits to businesses and to the economy as a whole, Lim said.

Following the visit to USF, Stoner issued a document highlighting the EPA's focus on innovation in technology as a means to solve water management problems and on developing infrastructure, treatment and monitoring of water resources.