Jack had his beanstalk. James had his giant peach.
Stephanie Butler Velegol has her Moringa seed.
“I got interested in the statistics that you hear of the people who die every day from waterborne diseases, mostly diarrhea,” she said. “I was teaching my students how to create clean water and proper sanitation, but somehow that wasn’t translating to people around the world who need it.”
For Velegol, an instructor of environmental engineering at Penn State, facts are generally favored over fairy tales. But with her research on the tawny, tiny seed, she and a team of scientists are hoping to ground its magical properties in reality.
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That’s after they’re grinded down first. The seeds possess a special protein that when crushed causes microbes to clump together and settle to the bottom.
“But the nice thing about that is you can create the technology without any fancy equipment,” Velegol said. “That’s what I was always going for — sand, seeds and water is all you need.”
Just crush and add to water. Throw in some sand and voila — a flocculation sensation.
Or as Velegol calls it, “sticky killer sand.”
“That protein that we’re interested in will actually stick on its own to the sand because it’s oppositely charged from the sand,” she said. “If you change the charge like we did, you can actually capture them.”
It’s fatal attraction for bacteria. Which means its water-cleaning potential has few borders.
Velegol and her team traveled to Rwanda in May, working with a couple of ingenuitive companies seeking to recycle natural waste products into reusable goods. Pivot Works, a wastewater treatment operation based in Kigali, the capital, turns human fecal matter into renewable fuel. For a developing nation like Rwanda, turning poop into power has broad consequences. But in extracting water from waste, the company imports a more expensive, long-chain cationic polymer to do the job.
What if, Velegol thought, the process could be simplified? What if money did literally grow on trees?
“I started to look into it, like, ‘Why can’t we just make them what we have?’ ” she said. “But that is a very Western way of thinking.”
Enter the Moringa seed. Its host, commonly known as “The Miracle Tree,” is regarded as a repository for nature’s bounty. Packed with nutrients, the tree’s uses are nearly endless. Besides having the potential to help clean water, its seeds, when processed, produce oils that can be used in everything from cooking to cosmetics. It’s enough to make a scientist blush.
Mike Erdman, an instructor of engineering and science mechanics who was part of the team, said the tree’s leaves are some of the most nutritional food sources on earth.
“Moringa is a fantastic plant and it can grow anywhere in the tropics anywhere around the world,” he said. “If you map where Moringa grows all over the world and you map where malnutrition is prevalent, it’s almost one for one.”
The Penn State team worked with another company, Asili Natural Oils, which extracts oil from the seeds for commercial uses. While Asili needed the seeds, the waste product, the dried cakey leftovers, could be used by the researchers. It would be a cheaper, natural alternative right in Pivot Works’ backyard.
So the secret to clean water? It might be found in a tiny brown speck.
“It’s not invasive, and it grows very quickly and it grows in very hot and dry climates,” Velegol said. “So you don’t need a lot of water.”
But sometimes science stinks. During the tests, the cakes produced clumping, but on a smaller scale than with the company’s imported polymer. For now, the seed can’t replace the traditional method.
“It didn’t really work the way that we wanted,” Velegol said.
Yet all is not lost. Like seeds, some miracles take time to grow.
“We haven’t completely given up on that,” she added. “So even if we could reduce the amount of polymer that they use, that would save them a lot of money.”
There may be other uses in the future. While the seed may not replace the current polymer in the company’s wastewater treatment process anytime soon, Velegol said, it may be able to help in treating the effluent — or the discharged water after it’s squeezed out from the sludge. Currently, the water goes back into the ground.
Beyond the research, the experience itself was eye-opening. Adam Uliana and Emma Clement, the two students on the trip, had grown accustomed to sterilized labs and the concept of running water. Conducting studies in Africa, where their lab was a retrofitted shipping container or “a lab in a box” as Uliana calls it, was not a fairy tale, per se, but another lens of reality, one they hadn’t looked through before.
Here, clean H20 for an experiment is just a button press away. There, a ceramic filter is used.
“We used rainwater instead,” said Clement, a junior studying civil engineering. “Because cleaning your beakers in deionized water with the special lab soap wasn’t possible.”
Yet science, even when it smells, means more than facts and figures.
“The one thing that surprised me the most that was a misconception I had as a child is how similar everyone actually is,” said Uliana, a senior chemical engineering major. “You have different backgrounds and different cultural sensitivities, but when you realize you can bond over things that all humans share, there’s a lot of hope with it.”
While the Moringa seeds didn’t perform their magic precisely as planned, the team planted a few of their own. For Velegol, the connections the group built made the trip a success.
“It definitely was one of the key things for the group, for us to see firsthand that if we want to implement this technology anywhere, we’ve got to be able to tell people how to do it given the resources they have,” she said. “We got to see (their) ideas and our ideas mixing together, and that’s something I think goes beyond the technology.”