Skip to content

The University of Texas at ArlingtonThe University of Texas at Arlington

College of Science

College of Science News

NSF committee praises chemistry professor's life-saving work

Sandy Dasgupta
Sandy Dasgupta

UT Arlington chemistry Professor Purnendu "Sandy" Dasgupta's work with arsenic detection is an outstanding representation of research that furthers knowledge, discovery and learning, says a committee of experts appointed by the National Science Foundation. Dasgupta used NSF funds to develop an analyzer for arsenic in drinking water that could help the millions of people at risk of exposure from naturally-occurring arsenic contamination in South and East Asia. The instrument is less expensive and more effective and environmentally-friendly than current methods.

Dasgupta's "A Green Fieldable Analyzer for Arsenic" was one of less than 30 chemistry research projects designated as "high impact" by the National Science Foundation's 2010 Chemistry Committee of Visitors. That body considered several hundred projects that received funding between 2007 and 2009. The group is comprised of professors and other experts from throughout the U.S.

"We're extremely proud to have a scientist of world-class caliber like Dr. Dasgupta at The University of Texas at Arlington," said Pamela Jansma, dean of the College of Science. "The recognition by the Committee of Visitors for his outstanding research is well-deserved and appreciated in the College of Science."

In South and East Asia, at least 700,000 people have been affected by arsenicosis, which is caused by chronic arsenic exposure through drinking water. Sixty million people are at risk of exposure, according to a report by The World Bank. Chronic arsenic poisoning can lead to various serious health problems, including fatal cancers.

Unfortunately, current field detection systems for testing well water for arsenic are not sensitive enough and encounter trouble measuring arsenic near 10 micrograms/L, the World Health Organization's current acceptable standard. They also involve the use of toxic chemicals like lead and mercury.

Dasgupta, chairman of UT Arlington's Department of Chemistry, saw the devastating effects of arsenic exposure when he toured villages of Bangladesh in 1998 during a conference on the country's arsenic problem. Bangladesh is the country worst affected by the natural contamination of widely used "tube wells." He returned to Texas determined to try to help.

"Although I myself was born in India, my ancestors come from that part of the world and it was very difficult to see," he said. "My proposal wasn't funded originally, but I wasn't about to give up. We got it funded on our third attempt." Sandy Dasgupta

In late 2006, Dasgupta, who was then a professor at Texas Tech University, received a $310,239 grant from the NSF to develop a more environmentally friendly testing machine that could be used in the field. His analyzer is based on the intense chemiluminescence resulting from the gas phase reaction of the arsenic compound arsine and ozone. The current version is designed around a graphite cathode and uses electrical power that can be provided by a rechargeable battery. Results can show arsenic contamination down to sub-part per billion. The cost of the machine is about $2,500.

"The instrument presently uses basically water, air, electricity and a very small amount of sulfuric acid that is recycled," Dasgupta said. "So, it's truly a green analyzer."

Further development has also resulted in the ability to detect different types of arsenic, an important distinction because different kinds of arsenic have varying toxicity, Dasgupta said.

Several papers about the new detection system have been published in the American Chemical Society's Analytical Chemistry journal and other publications. The method is currently in use at Sono Technology & Research Ltd. in Bangladesh, which makes arsenic removal filters. Dasgupta is exploring further opportunities to spread the technology's use.