Water goddess’ research may one day provide clean drinking water to millions

Anahita Esmaeilian has been thinking about the threat of unclean drinking water on our planet for a long time. She has been thinking about the nearly 800 million people who don’t have access to clean water and about how every minute two people will die because of this lack of access.

Anahita in lab

“We can change this,” said Esmaeilian, a Ph.D. Candidate with the CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and the Environment in FIU’s Institute of Environment. “Actually, we have the responsibility to change this.”

About four years ago, Esmaeilian was a Ph.D. student in Sweden working on extracting proteins from fish. While the project was interesting, she knew it wasn’t her passion.

“When I was admitted to the environmental chemistry program at FIU, I quit my Ph.D. in Sweden and came here in the hopes that I could do something that I love,” Esmaeilian said. “My passion is working on water and water treatment.”

Maybe it’s no coincidence that her first name, Anahita, means “Goddess of Water” in her native Persian. She explains that, perhaps, her passion has always been unconsciously impacted by this fact.

Today, Esmaeilian works on perfecting a method that will safely, cheaply, quickly and easily clean dirty water to make it drinkable. Esmaeilian now works on her Ph.D. in FIU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry under the mentorship of her advisor and professor, Kevin O’Shea. Her research focuses on developing a water purification method that uses magnetic nanoparticles to remove problematic toxins, like agricultural herbicides and industrial dyes.

Esmaeilian uses what’s called a “sorbent” to remove pollutants from contaminated water. Her sorbent is a magnetic iron nanoparticle which is coated with an environmentally friendly humic acid. The sorbent is dropped into a dirty water source and the pollutants latch onto it. The “dirty” part of the water can then be removed by simply using a magnet to pull them out. All that’s left is clean and drinkable water.

“For just a few dollars, people can have safe and clean water all over the world,” she said. “That’s kind of cool!”

Esmaeilian’s sorbent can be reused over and over again. She has developed a process to wash and reuse the nanoparticles up to five times without losing their ability to purify water.

Her method is easier, faster and cheaper to use than anything currently commercialized. She is also working on developing a mathematical model based on the relationship between how much of the nanoparticles to use, how dirty a water source is, and how long it takes to clean the water. She plans to share this mathematical formula with water treatment plant designers so they can employ her technique on a larger scale.

“Water treatment is crucial for human health and the environment, and I want to do something that is beneficial for people and the environment,” Esmaeilian said.

Her research was recently awarded two of the highest honors from FIU’s University Graduate School 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition: 1st place and the People’s Choice award. The event challenges graduate students to present their thesis in only 3 minutes. This year’s competition took place virtually on January 28th. Eight students were finalists who competed for first place and Esmaeilian went home the winner.

Having come in first, Esmaeilian moved on to represent FIU at the 3MT Southern regional competition. She says that she believes passion helps with being able to share complicated scientific concepts.

“When you’re passionate about your research, it’s a joy to share that passion with others. Now I feel more confident communicating with people about my work,” Esmaeilian said. “I know that if you add a bit of humor or you just talk in plain language, people are more receptive to what you’re saying.”

Her research has enormous potential.

“I am honored to carry the banner of FIU to the Southern regional competition. I am grateful for CREST and the CAChE lab for the support they have provided, particularly during the analytical phase of my research,” she said.

Take a look at Esmaeilian’s 3MT submission to learn more about her research or visit the CREST CAChE website for more about the Institute of Environment’s water quality work.