Colombia: a Univalle researcher seeks to catalyze chemical reactions… and the development of his indigenous community

This article was originally published on Faculty of Engineering (Universidad del Valle) website here and has been reproduced with permission. It is written by Andrew James (NCC/Univalle).

More efficient processes for breaking down very persistent water pollutants are being developed, thanks to the work of a chemical engineer from the Universidad del Valle (Univalle), who is also contributing to the development of his indigenous community.

José Antonio Lara Ramos, a doctoral student at the School of Chemical Engineering (GAOX), explained that he models the action of catalysts and designs equipment that uses ozone reactions to treat wastewater.

Chemical engineers typically use catalysts to facilitate chemical reactions faster than they would in nature, without being consumed in the process.

In the particular case of Lara’s work, catalysts facilitate a reaction of ozone to generate hydroxyl free radicals, which are unstable molecules that damage other chemical structures.

“Some molecules, due to their structure or size, are not degraded by bleach or chlorine, but this hydroxyl radical can attack them effectively,” Lara explained.

Water treatment

Although Colombia is a country with abundant water resources, access to drinking water and wastewater treatment are major challenges for rural and urban populations.

In 2006, on average only 25% of wastewater was treated, leading to contamination of water resources, according to a report by the superintendent of public services and more than 3 million people (7% of the Colombian population), still no access to drinking water, according to a Colombian government bulletin in 2021.

Moreover, in both developed and developing countries, emerging contaminants such as diclofenac and ibuprofen (anti-inflammatories) pass through the human body but are not degraded by conventional treatment plants.

Lara explains that a fix is ​​a process called ozonation.

“The ozonization processes are well known in different countries, even here in Colombia they have already been studied, but the opportunity arose to improve some properties of a catalyst that we were using”, he said. he stated, adding that his strength is mathematical modelling.

The catalysts in which Lara works are the iron minerals magnetite and goethite as well as titanium dioxide. All three are common and inexpensive minerals.

Lara explained that the shape of the catalyst, at the molecular level, and its physical properties will help facilitate reactions with ozone, but there are many other factors in practical application.

“Nanoparticle contamination is already a problem, so it’s not ideal to just release these catalysts into the water,” Lara explained, adding that one idea would be, inside the tubes where the water going to be treated, they could mount rings coated with catalysts.

“The catalysts do not dissolve in water and have a higher density than water, so it is possible to recover them at the bottom of the treatment vessel.”

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José Lara in his laboratory. Image reproduced with the kind permission of Andrew James/NCC-FI/Univalle

Benefits of international collaboration

Lara had the opportunity to do a research internship in Porto, Portugal, with Professor Víctor Vilar for five months and then in Spain with Professor Manuel Rodrigo, an expert in electrochemistry.

Professor Fiderman Machuca Martínez, of Univalle’s Faculty of Engineering and Lara’s mentor, said the time spent abroad had been very productive and positive.

“When you leave the country, the visions change, you meet more people, different ways of working, different ways of thinking,” said the professor, adding that you also integrate the knowledge of other cultures.

The professor said Lara returned from Spain and Portugal after a few months with scientific publications of a quality usually found in a full doctorate.

“It’s very important for Univalle… It’s the goal of internationalization, not just travel.”

Ing Lara said a contributing factor in delivering so many publications (11 papers in total, today), was the close and collegial collaborations with her project supervisors.

“The researcher explained to me the impact and context of the work…The focus was on answering questions of interest to the scientific community”

Although he learned a lot abroad, Lara says he felt motivated, like many other Colombian expats, to return home.

“We are returning to Colombia for many reasons: the closeness to our families is a motivation… but the Colombians are also very capable and we can come back to improve our country,” Lara said.

Members of the Indigenous Council of the Zenú People (CIPEZ) of Turbaco in the department of Bolívar in Colombia. Image courtesy of CIPEZ.

Commitment to the community

Lara is a member of the Indigenous Council (Cabildo) of the Zenú People (CIPEZ) of Turbaco, in the department of Bolívar and maintains close ties with this community of 1,200 people.

Yimy Crescencio Berrio Almanza, the legal representative and current captain of CIPEZ, explained that Lara is a reference for the new generations of the community.

“Having direct contact with a person who is an important player in scientific research in our nation and who is also a member of the Cabildo is a valuable element for our organization,” said the captain.

He explained that when the Cabildo makes public policy decisions, they are made with a combination of ancestral knowledge and new knowledge that science and technology can provide.

“In this, Jose Antonio has a very important added value for our Cabildo,” said the captain.

Lara said one of the advantages of Univalle is that it has a greater participation of Indigenous students and researchers than many other academic institutions.

“I thought of going to Univalle because it is one of the best universities in the country and it is part of my country… I always wanted to do my doctorate and my masters here, mainly for this reason, out of love,” Lara said.

This article was originally published on Faculty of Engineering (Universidad del Valle) website here and has been reproduced with permission. It is written by Andrew James (NCC/Univalle).