News & Features

Saleh Research Group - Enhancing Access to Clean Water

 Dr Navid Saleh and colleague watching Navajo potter Deanna Tso sculpt 

 July 2, 2015

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and a potter from the Navajo Nation are creating a nanomaterial-enabled ceramic filter to enhance economically challenged communities’ access to potable water. 

The project began four years ago after assistant professor Navid Saleh was inspired by Judy Pasternak’s “Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed.” The book documents the toxic legacy of uranium mining in New Mexico and northeast Arizona where mine tailings left behind during the 4-decades long uranium mining (1943-1986) contaminated surface and ground water of the Diné (the Navajos).

In 2013, Saleh led a team of National Science Foundation funded students to the Navajo Nation and partnered with the Bureau of Land Management’s Abandoned Land Mine personnel to look at water contamination issues that impacted the Diné. From the groundwater sampled from the area, it was clear that the abandoned uranium mines and open mine pits pose serious threats to human health, safety, and the environment.

During an analysis of groundwater from the T’iisnázbąs area, the team discovered that there is 10 times more arsenic (110 micrograms per liter) in the water than maximum recommended limit of 10 micrograms per liter.

“This is a big problem,” says Saleh. “If arsenic is present, there will be other contaminants.”

Saleh felt that it was his responsibility as an environmental engineer to develop a solution. Because clay and the art of pottery interconnect Navajo traditions and daily life, Saleh began researching ceramic filters and nanomaterials to treat contaminated water with his students and colleague, Professor Desmond Lawler.

Saleh’s work at the Navajo Nation builds on a recently defended dissertation of PhD student Anne Mikelonis (supervised by Professor Lawler).  As part of her work, she studied the attachment and detachment of silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) to and from ceramic water filters along with its antimicrobial effects at Pure Home Water, a filter factory located in Tamale, Ghana.  Mikelonis also studied the attachment of AgNPs to aluminum oxide membranes used in municipal drinking water treatment plants in developing countries.

group of small circles in various shades of burnt orange

Ceramic coupons, made with local clay, will be used for testing the prototype design.

Saleh’s team is building on this body of work with Diné potter Deanna Tso to develop a point-of-use ceramic-based filter with multi-functional hybrid nanomaterials embedded within the ceramic casting. The researchers are currently creating testable coupons, working on a prototype, and investigating the modification of a design that is already in use by both industrialized and developing countries.

“Ancestral knowledge will be infused into state-of-the-art technology for water treatment,” says Saleh, “We felt that our clay and the glazing (coating that’s put on the clay) are not likely the same as would be found on the reservation area,” he says. “We felt that it would be best to work with local people who have acquired this ‘lifestyle knowledge’ from grandparents and ancestors, and that alone can make this technology appropriate for the area in concern.”

In 2014, Saleh presented a case study at the ACS National Meeting (March 2014, Dallas, TX) with students Lewis Stetson Rowles and Nirupam Aich, “Synthesis and characterization of carbonaceous nanomaterial-mutimetallic hybrids for simultaneous removal of radioactive and organic contaminants: A case study on Navajo Nation."

Rowles, a master’s/PhD student and NSF Graduate fellow with a deep commitment to transformative water purification research, is also a highly skilled potter. Rowles is working on synthesis of the functional nanohybrids with doctoral students Dipesh Das, Jaime Plazas-Tuttle, and Nirupam Aich at Saleh’s laboratory.

While researchers build the engineering aspect of the clay and work with Diné potters, they will also collaborate with students and faculty from San Juan College for the next several years.

Dr Navid Saleh and colleagues standing near tall green grass at San Juan college

Dr. Navid Saleh (center) and Stetson Rowles (center back) with colleages at San Juan College.

“We’re looking for a long term relationship in this community,” Saleh added. “The research will not only help the Navajo people but potentially many other communities due to its ability to be adjusted and tuned to serve water decontamination needs of other low-income populations across the globe.”

In 2019 and 2020, Saleh and his students plan to host two exhibitions and seminars; one in Santa Fe, NM, at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the other in Window Rock, AZ, at the Navajo Nation Museum.