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Microbiologist uses Georgia’s plentiful kaolin to remove bacteria from water

Graduate Scott Johnson and junior Rachel Brineman inspect microbes in Dr. Andrei Barkovskii’s laboratory in Herty Hall.

Kaolin – a soft white clay mined in Georgia and used in a variety of products – has a new application thanks to a microbiology professor and his students, who recently discovered its ability to remove 100 percent E. coli and 99 percent of other bacteria from water.

With a $32,000 grant from the industrial mineral company, IMERYS, the Georgia College team is now conducting new research to see whether kaolin also removes viruses from drinking water and wastewater.

Dr. Andrei Barkovskii and Scott Johnson.

“This absolutely never ever has been achieved by anybody,” said Dr. Andrei L. Barkovskii, professor of biological and environmental sciences.

“I very well know about the chemistry of kaolin,” he said. “I know it has high absorption capacities. With some additional approaches, we can apply the kaolin and treat water until the water is clean.”

More than 8 million metric tons of kaolin are mined each year in Georgia with an estimated value of $1 billion, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The versatile clay is one of the state’s largest natural resources used in making porcelain, paper, rubber and paints. It’s also found in skin and hair products, soaps and deodorants.

Barkovskii has worked on other projects with IMERYS – a company with mineral sites in more than 50 countries and processing plants in Georgia. They asked the scientist to develop new uses for the clay. This was perfect for Barkovskii, who has investigated microbiology and water since his early training days in Russia. He moved to the United States in 1994 and Georgia College in 2001.

Barkovskii knew the best chance for kaolin was its absorptive qualities. It took two years to prove his hypothesis, and the implications are far-reaching.

Johnson uses microbiological equipment in the lab.

Many municipalities have outdated wastewater systems and difficulty with poor-tasting water. Even the most sophisticated systems in the U.S. are far behind European treatment centers, Barkovskii said. Food processing plants, agricultural farms, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies all need uncontaminated water for their products.

Kaolin offers a more economical and efficient way to rid large amounts of water of bacteria.

Now, Barkovskii’s team works to see if kaolin’s cleansing powers also remove deadly viruses from water – germs that cause stomach flu and other illnesses. 

“Our current wastewater systems remove barely 2 or 3 percent, maybe 10 percent, of viruses,” Barkovskii said. “We can remove bacteria, but now we try to remove viruses. So, we will see what happens. I am pretty confident we will do this.”

Eight students worked with Barkovskii to develop the water-cleansing method. This gave students a chance to do science with real-world applications. They handled pipes, transferred liquid and collected data, using microbiological and molecular equipment.

Like any new member of a scientific lab, Scott Johnson of Milledgeville started out as an undergraduate washing dirty dishes, flasks and beakers. Little did he know he would remain in Barkovskii’s lab as a biology graduate student and leading lab member – using the kaolin project for his thesis.

“I’ve learned that hard work pays off,” said Johnson, who plans to get a PhD in biology. “I’ve learned that working as a team is invaluable, as the amount of trials conducted and data collected would not be humanly possible for one person.”

Dr. Barkovskii, Johnson and Brineman.

Barkovskii calls junior Rachel Brineman of Canton “the working machine” behind bacterial research. A biology major and chemistry minor, Brineman joined the lab 1 ½ years ago hoping to be challenged. She runs trials and organizes collected data into graphs – work she calls the highlight of her college years.

“We discovered that some kaolin products work better than others,” she said, “and that the removal of bacteria by kaolin is more effective when placed in an acidic solution.”

The project helped Brineman cultivate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. It taught patience too – something she’ll use as she moves into the lab’s leadership role. After graduation, Brineman plans to go to medical school.

“Research has taught me not to get discouraged when things don’t work,” she said. “There’s a lot of trial and error, and it took me a long time to get used to this. But, if you’re willing to put in the time and determination, you will eventually succeed.”

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