Chemistry professor leads effort to fight water pollutants

The structure of TAML, a catalyst that can oxidize and destroy harmful toxins in the water. The structure of TAML, a catalyst that can oxidize and destroy harmful toxins in the water.

“The world we are delivering to the next generation is utterly unsustainable.”

These are the words of professor Terry Collins, senior member of the Institute for Green Science and honorary professor of green chemistry. In recent years, because of the exploitation of carbon-emitting fossil fuels, the growing industrialization in developing countries, and the damaging treatment of the environment, green chemistry has emerged as a necessity for ensuring that our planet remains viable.

Green chemistry is the study and research of new methods and processes that limit the use of hazardous substances emitted into the environment. This problem of an unsustainable future has been at the center of Collins’s career and at the center of the field of green chemistry.

Collins has been one of the primary leaders of green chemistry. “My career started in 1980, and green chemistry didn’t come along till 1991. But the 11 years before green chemistry, I was doing green chemistry,” he said. In fact, as a result of Collins’s heavy investment in green chemistry even before its onset, Carnegie Mellon was the first institution to offer classes on the field.

While there are myriad pathways in the field of green chemistry, Collins has his sights on designing a way to reduce water pollution. Currently, different molecules flow into the water supply from medications, waste, purifiers, and other hosts. Many of these molecules have detrimental effects on not only humans that drink the water, but also on the aquatic life that lives in the water. Collins’s lab focuses on endocrine disruptors, which are some the most harmful toxins currently being excreted into the water supply.

The endocrine system controls the development of bodily functions, whether it be growth, tissue functions, reproductive functions, or metabolism. Endocrine disruptors are the most devastating toxins in water because if any stage of development is distrubed, the organism could be permanently changed or mutated.

“The endocrine disruption problem is the reason that the chemical enterprise is currently unsustainable,” Collins warned. “If I can take some pressure off through the water, then that is wonderfully rewarding, personally,” he said.

With this goal in mind, Collins has spent the last 15-20 years perfecting a method of removing these harmful toxins from the water. His invention, and the hallmark of his career, is the tetra-amido macrocyclic ligand (TAML) catalyst. Collins and his lab engineered this catalyst to oxidize and destroy harmful toxins in the water. A unique property of this molecule is that very small amounts of it are able to target and destroy numerous kinds of harmful wastes.

“It’s essentially like putting fire with water; minuscule amounts of TAML oxidize toxins down and take them all out. That’s what you want; you want a generic blow torch that goes in and gets rid of all the toxins in the water,” Collins said.

According to Collins, the oxidation properties of the man-made catalyst are actually working better than natural catalysts. “They are out-performing the enzymes. We are able to put them in water with tiny amounts and they work,” he said.

Collins is working in conjunction with other institutions to start a company that will commercialize and utilize his catalyst to clean water in both Europe and the United States. However, one of the major concerns and points of further investigation, is whether or not the TAML catalysts themselves are harmful to humans. Over the last decade Collins has researched and documented the effects of his catalyst on organisms at unprecedented levels. The main goal of the research has been to prove that the TAML catalyst does not act as an endocrine disruptor.
“We are mapping the entire territory on how to design to not create an endocrine disruptor. We’ve done more than anyone has ever done. People just don’t do these studies,” he said. The lab has been working mainly with fish species to test the effects of TAML. While fish are a similar model to humans, the lab will do further research to confirm that there are no side effects on mammals.

Abigail Burton is a senior in the chemistry department’s joint BS/MS program and a part of Collins’s lab. “I find Professor Collins’s research interesting because it’s important and currently relevant to the real world. It is interesting academically because we do things that no one has ever done before, but it is also interesting because the problems our research solve are relevant to all life on our planet,” she said.

The research being done on TAML catalysts has enabled us to envision new ways of maintaining the ecosystems we occupy. With further successful testing, one day we might see the fruits of Collins’s career enriching the lives of millions around the world.