An environmental scientist at the University of Oklahoma (OU) is researching water filtration methods using raw materials from bone and wood that could be used for cleaner, safer drinking water in developing countries.

Large amounts of naturally occurring fluoride in water can lead to dental fluorosis and skeletal fluorosis. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), researcher Laura Brunson is working on methods of removing fluoride from drinking water, using tools and raw materials readily available in local communities in Africa. Brunson and her team recently returned from a month of fieldwork in Ethiopia, where they tested filtering methods using charred bones and charred wood. Brunson’s research is featured in the Science Nation special report Engineering Safer Drinking Water in Africa.

“We”d prefer to find filtration materials that don”t have to be shipped in from another country, and that are inexpensive,” Brunson tells Science Nation. “We took materials, such as bone char and aluminum-coated bone char that we”ve worked with in the laboratory for quite a while to Ethiopia and did continuous flow studies in that setting to see what would happen under more realistic conditions.”

Researchers learned some communities would not be willing to use water that has been filtered thorough bones due to religious and cultural reasons, which led to investigating wood char and plant material as filtering options. Science Nation says Brunson is beginning a study of the use of plant waste material as a possible filter material, testing char made from the grain teff. Teff kernels are used in the production of injera, the staple bread of Ethiopia.

Brunson is also looking at ways to make clean water solutions sustainable and locally controlled while boosting the local economy. Brunson tells Science Nation a livelihood could be provided to those who would sell the bone char filters. Not only would this help grow the local community’s economy, but it would also help provide water that’s treated for fluoride to the people who need it.

There is also a big health improvement, if people are not suffering from diseases caused by arsenic, fluoride, or parasites in unclean water, she says.

The University of Oklahoma”s College of Engineering is home to the WaTER Center (Water Technologies for Emerging Regions). In addition to research on the removal of toxins like fluoride and arsenic, the center studies techniques such as passive wetland treatments for improving water quality, and also how climate change and drought might impact water cleanup.

To view the Science Nation video about Brunson’s research or to read the full report, click here.