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Professor Creates Compound to Indicate Lead in Water Patented Substance Detects Levels Lower than EPA Limits

Dr. Partha Basu, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Duquesne University, along with a post-doctoral associate and undergraduate student, has developed an extremely selective compound that detects leads in water.

The compound can identify as little as 10 parts per billion of lead chloride, acids and metals—thus, is more sensitive than the limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Very importantly, this compound can detect and quantify lead in the presence of other metal ions.

The compound could be useful to consumers as well as to industrial and municipal water system monitors. Lead can present a health problem, especially to the brains and nervous systems of children, and the EPA wants to eliminate all elevated blood levels in children by 2010.

Not only does this new compound sense lead, it can measure the amount of lead present while other commercial lead sensors on the market indicate only whether lead is present, Basu said. The substance, which selectively detects lead, provides results within an hour and is easily read by a fluorescent violet glow that shows lead has been detected. Additionally, the compound, called Leadglow, works with a small amount of water, as little as a jellybean-sized sample.

Monitoring lead in water, Basu said, typically requires sending a sample to a lab with sophisticated spectroscopy. This new, yellowish compound, which looks like dried onion flakes, does not require sophisticated instruments and can make the testing process portable.

“We weren’t actually trying to make a lead sensor in the beginning,” said Basu, who was seeking a component to an enzyme. But when this selective, lead-sensitive compound was discovered, Basu and his team, including post-doctoral associate Dr. Barbara Serli-Mitasev and undergraduate Lauren Marbella of Bethel Park, were open to its potential. “Sometimes we may not be able to see immediately the application of the science,” Basu said.

“This discovery is really a testament to our undergraduate students,” said Basu, noting that a paper on the compound has been published in the April 30 issue of the prestigious German Chemical Society journal Angewandte Chemie.

Marbella, now a senior biochemistry major in the Bayer School of Environmental and Natural Sciences, opted as a sophomore to begin work on this project because “it gave me more room” than some other research projects.

Besides being a scientific finding with commercial potential, the discovery has become a learning experience in the biotechnology classroom and stands to benefit from marketing expertise on campus. Duquesne’s Small Business Development Center is developing a marketing feasibility study for the project through grant funding, thanks to a $5,250 grant from Innovation Works.

“The discovery of this compound with commercial potential provides Duquesne with an opportunity to maximize complementary services that can be provided internally by faculty, staff and students,” said Dr. Alan W. Seadler, who holds the Edward V. Fritzky Chair in Biotechnology Leadership at Duquesne and serves as associate academic vice president for research.

Four students in Seadler’s biotechnology class prepared a marketing plan for the lead detector. The plan, developed by students Aaron Gilkey, Jaime Wetzel, Kristen Agnew and Michael Gorski, took first place in a business idea competition winner contest at Duquesne sponsored by the Pittsburgh Central Keystone Innovation Zone, a public-private consortium designed to develop young businesses through tapping resources of educational institutions.

The Leadglow Technologies plan also won second-place in the April 14 contest open to students from four participating colleges.

"All of the other teams that submitted ideas for the competition were composed of business majors," said Bill Generett, executive director of the PCKIZ. “All four judges were not only impressed with the idea but with the business savvy of the Leadglow team, especially since they were all scientists. All of the judges feel that with some hard work, Leadglow can be turned into a successful business."

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.