Carnegie Mellon University
October 12, 2022

Marcus Schafer Looks to Clean Up Antibiotics in Wastewater

By Kirsten Heuring

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

When he isn't playing Dungeons and Dragons, Marcus Schafer is an absolute wizard at green chemistry.

"Marcus has exceptional chemical and problem-solving insight," said Terrence Collins, the Teresa Heinz Professor in Green Chemistry and the director of the Institute for Green Science. "He forms his own judgments on the chemistry he is studying. They are so solid that one wouldn't want to shake him from his conclusions unless in possession of powerful contradicting data."

Schafer became interested in safe and sustainable chemistry while growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Between his hometown and New Orleans is an area known as Cancer Alley, where more than 150 oil production facilities along the Mississippi River release chemicals into the air. Local populations have higher rates of cancer than national averages.

"I think my entire state of Louisiana is a very good example of why chemistry done without sustainability in mind can be massively harmful to humans and the environment," Schafer said.

In the spring of his first year of college, Schafer joined the Institute for Green Science on a project led by Ph.D. candidate Parameswar Pal, which was an in-depth analysis on how a specific type of catalyst, TAML, with the common oxidizing agent, hydrogen peroxide, could be better used to purify water. In the process, they discovered that the reaction rate fluctuates depending on the target they want to destroy and the acidity found in the contaminated water.

Using a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which provides CMU undergraduates with $3,500 to conduct full time summer research, Schafer has moved on to his own research interests into fluoroquinolone contamination. A common antibiotic, fluoroquinolone is use widely and appears in waterways globally.

Marcus Schafer"What goes into the body must come out, and in the case of many antibiotics, a fairly large percentage of what comes out is the antibiotic itself," Schafer (left) said. "That gives them a very direct route into wastewater streams, and that's quite a substantial problem."

When these antibiotics are left in wastewater streams, they are at concentrations high enough to inhibit bacteria but not kill them. These conditions make some sewers a breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which have the potential to jumpstart the next pandemic.

Schafer has found the same catalyst he has investigated in his research with Pal and Collins, TAML, provides a superior approach to significantly reduce fluoroquinolones in a water source.

"Our current generation catalyst was able to very nearly destroy antibiotics in about two hours of treatment using the bare minimum amount of peroxide," Schafer said. "We're looking at room for improvement that we know is possible with this catalyst. I'm very excited about how powerful we can make this technology."

Schafer said the next steps for this research are to use the catalyst against real wastewater samples so he can further enhance and refine the processes needed to remove antibiotic contaminants.

"Typically, producers and water purifiers want just to see the drug destroyed and then declare victory," Collins said. "But there is much more to the environmental performance story for every drug, and Marcus is playing an important role in helping us to show how to get complete pictures."

Outside of the lab and school, Schafer plays violin. He is a member of the CMU All University Orchestra, which provides a creative outlet. He also enjoys playing tabletop roleplaying games with friends.

Schafer finds his true passion in safe and sustainable chemistry. He plans on pursuing a doctoral degree in the field.

"Another thing that excites me is the interdisciplinary potential that this research and sustainability chemistry really have," Schafer said. "We as chemists can do a lot, but this scale of environmental contamination can't be dealt with from just one field. We have to work very broadly to make sure we're not doing things that will make our problems worse."

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