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Texas A&M researcher combats water contamination with naturally occurring iron

Virender K. Sharma, Ph.D., M.Tech, M.Sc. with students
Virender K. Sharma, PhD, MTech, MSc with students

According to the United Nations, water poses one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st Century. In fact, by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will face a severe water shortage. Additionally, the World Health Organization says the presence of pathogens and toxins in water cause more than two million deaths annually, mostly children under the age of five years old. A Texas A&M researcher is looking to naturally occurring iron to solve the world’s water problem.

“Water scarcity and pollution threaten our ability to grow strong and stable economies, meet basic human needs, and protect healthy ecosystems, while also posing severe human health problems,” said Virender K. Sharma, PhD, MTech, MSc, professor and environmental chemist at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health.

According to Sharma, supercharged iron, or ferrate, may hold the solution to the world’s impending water crisis. Sharma is investigating the use of this environmentally friendly chemical compound as a water-treatment disinfectant to ensure public health protection through availability of water that is clean and suitable for communities.

“It is vitally important that a readily abundant and cost-effective solution be developed,” said Sharma. “Naturally occurring iron can be easily converted to ferrate, which can be used in both air and water purification as a disinfectant to aid in the removal of toxins without leaving behind harmful by-products.”

Ferrate has been found to be particularly useful in the reuse and recycling of water. This emerging water-treatment technology could address the challenge of eliminating potentially carcinogenic disinfectant by-products (DBPs) currently left behind with traditional water treatment chemicals, such as free chlorine, chloramines and ozone.

“When combined with solar energy through sunlight, ferrates provide a green and innovative sustainable treatment strategy to remove a variety of contaminants from the public’s water,” Sharma said.

Currently, Sharma is conducting a National Science Foundation study on the oxidative elimination of cyanotoxins – potent toxic compounds that can be absorbed by water and pose a serious environmental hazard – by ferrates.

“Microcystins, which are toxic to plants, animals and humans, are the most widespread cyanotoxins globally and ferrate efficiently treats microcystins without producing toxic by-products,” said Sharma.

In another study for the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Sharma explored clean technologies capable of water refining and nutrient/energy recovery. This study found the development of a low cost oxidation and coagulation treatment with no start-up time and quick process for the treatment of pollutants and prevention of adverse environmental impacts.

“Access to clean and sustainable water is essential to ensuring a community remains strong and continues to develop,” Sharma said. “We rely on clean water to survive; however, with changing climate patterns and continuous pollution, it becomes all the more important to develop cost-effective ways to protect our water sources and safely remove harmful contaminants.”

Media contact: Dee Dee Grays,, 979.436.0611

Rae Lynn Mitchell

SPH - Director of Communications and Alumni Affairs

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