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The Power of a Peanut

Have you ever heard of peanuts filtering water?

No? Well, Stephen Adom, a 32-year-old graduate student in the Master of Science in Chemistry program, is pushing the boundaries when it comes to filtering water. He is originally from Ghana and is studying chemistry with a focus on environmental chemistry.

“I got interested in this research because Ghana struggles with water treatment issues, especially the removal of heavy metals from water before supplying to the communities. I felt that getting the knowledge of heavy metal treatment can be used to support the problem in Ghana and other parts of the world who may have similar issues,” Adom said.

Stephen working in the lab

So how exactly are peanuts used to filter water? It’s actually the peanut hulls that do the filtering once they are ground. Peanut hulls contain cellulose and lignin that comprise numerous -OH groups, which are hydroxyl groups that consist of a hydrogen atom covalently bonded to an oxygen atom. When these specific groups come in contact with dense metal contaminated water, the hydrogen ions are released into the water, creating binding sites on the hulls for the metal ions to attach to. When this occurs, the peanut hulls are capable of filtering dense metal-contaminated water.

Peanuts grinding in machine
Stephen working in the lab
Science lab equipment
Experiment notes in book

Carmen Huffman, associate professor of physical chemistry and program director of the graduate program, had a student, Kanika Davis, back in 2013, who was interested in an environmental project and had read a few articles on bioremediation. This essentially started the research. So why peanut hulls?

“Peanut shells seemed like a good material for some scientific reasons, but also because peanut production is a large part of the agricultural industry in North Carolina, and finding a use for the shell waste seemed like it would be interesting,” Huffman said.

Science lab equipment

Adom has a specific contribution to the research of peanut hulls. He looks at how the degree of acidity influences the uptake of the copper by the hulls. “It turns out the pH plays an important role. If the solution is too acidic, protons tend to occupy the binding sites of the hulls, but if the solution is too basic, the copper ions will form hydroxides and precipitate out of the solution rather than bind to the hulls,” Huffman said. What Stephen has discovered is a pH of 5-6 is an optimal range.

Stephen works in lab
Stephen works in lab
Stephen works in lab

This particular research is partially what motivated Adom to come to WCU and has helped him develop his proposal-and thesis-writing skills. Adom had the opportunity to supervise other students, which will help in his training towards becoming a chemist. “After WCU, I hope to continue my education to get a doctorate in a chemistry-related course. If possible, I will do similar research to broaden my knowledge and see how God leads me from there,” he said. 

Science lab equipment

About the Master of Science in Chemistry

Program Overview

Location: Cullowhee - Main Campus

App Deadline: Jan. 1, May 1, Aug. 1

Prerequisites: GRE, Personal Statement

Time to Complete: 30 hours, 21 months

Teaching Assistantships Available

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