VCU researcher filling vial with pipette.

Visiting Scholar Using Solar Radiation to Clean Water

Dr. Amr Ali Hassan has six months left at VCU to harness the power of the sun to clean contaminated water.

As a Fulbright visiting scholar, Hassan is conducting research at VCU on the development of new nanomaterials for the photocatalytic degradation of pesticides. Photocatalysts are materials which when combined with energy from the sun can accelerate a chemical reaction, in this case the reduction of pesticides from water. His work focuses on the degradation of a herbicide called atrazine, which is used in agriculture around the world to kill weeds and has been shown to be harmful to the environment.

“It should be safe for the environment,” said Hassan. “I cannot degrade something harmful by another something harmful, I have to produce something that is completely safe for the environment and cheap so as it be economically attractive for anybody to buy it or produce it.”

The economic viability of Hassan’s project is critical because in order to have an effect on the environment his catalyst must be widely used. It’s also probably one of the reasons why his proposal was chosen over hundreds of other applicants for the Fulbright Fellowship. Dr. Samy El-Shall is the chair of the Department of Chemistry where Dr. Hassan works, and was involved in reviewing applications for Fulbright a few years ago. He describes the application process, which takes over a year to complete, as extremely competitive.

“The proposals you are planning to do has to have very high in scientific merit but also important application, especially because the goal of Fulbright is to advance research that will have value to society when you go back to your country,” El-Shall said.

In Egypt, where Hassan lives and teaches as an assistant professor of chemistry at Ain Shams University, agriculture research is very well funded because food exports are one of the main sources of income for the country.

Atrazine is widely used in both Egypt and America on crops like corn, sugarcane, and wheat. It’s believed to have endocrine-disrupting and possible carcinogenic properties, meaning that it’s been shown to disrupt the hormone systems in the body and could cause cancer.

“When I read about this atrazine especially I found it so interesting to try to degrade these materials because I read lots of harmful effects on humanity,” said Hassan. “I saw it in the market everywhere, so I believe it will be in the water everywhere [and] it will be important to get rid of these materials.”

Atrazine was banned by the European Union in 2003 because of its “ubiquitous and unpreventable water contamination”, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still doesn’t classify it as a carcinogen and permits its use in America by certified herbicide workers.

“Whenever you add pesticides to any agriculture it’s going to tread in the soil and it’s going to sneak into the groundwater and from the groundwater into the rivers,” Hassan said.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registration, any atrazine that is washed from the soil into streams or other bodies of water will stay there for a long time because breakdown of the chemical is slow. Hassan is attempting to clean these contaminated bodies of water by introducing a catalyst that will absorb the solar energy from the sun and produce active ingredients to degrade the toxic atrazine.

He gained experience in the photocatalyst and photodegradation of organic materials during his first visit to the U.S. in 2011, when he worked at Clarkson University in upstate New York to develop pharmaceutical active materials to be used in medicine. Hassan enjoyed working with material sciences and nanomaterials especially, but found that there was no market for his research in Egypt.

“When I returned back to Egypt in 2013 it was hard for me to continue in this area because it is so expensive to work in this field and there’s not much research in medicine in Egypt, so I switched the applications of my nanomaterials from the medicine application to be in something easier to be applied in Egypt. So I try now to use it in industry or in environmental activity,” said Hassan.

Hassan is three months into his nine-month-long fellowship at VCU and has already had some success in developing catalysts that absorb ultraviolet radiation and degrade organic materials. He’s still working on degrading atrazine and on expanding the solar energy absorption to include visible light, but he’s confident that by the summer he will have a catalyst ready for testing on the Nile River.

Written by Megan Schiffres