Left to right, Sustainable Design Labs researchers Hassan Nawaz and David Sanchez pose for a portrait in their lab.
Earth Month

Pitt’s Sustainable Design Lab is developing novel materials to combat global water pollution issues

  • Community Impact
  • Innovation and Research
  • Sustainability

One in three people lacks access to safe drinking water. The finite limits of this resource make the growing presence of arsenic in groundwater, which supports the basic daily needs of 2.5 billion people worldwide, a pressing threat. 

“Arsenic contamination in water is a serious global issue but is a major concern of my country, Asian and developing countries, generally,” said Hassan Nawaz, a Pakistan-born environmentalist, exchange student and doctoral research scholar in the Pitt Swanson School of Engineering’s Sustainable Design Labs.

Nawaz and engineering associate professor David Sanchez are finding new ways to remove arsenic from water without the cost and harmful byproducts of traditional approaches like sedimentation, chemical precipitation and iron oxide filters.

Arsenic is a chemical element found in the earth’s crust. Though relatively harmless in small doses, its long-term presence in drinking water has been directly linked to cancer and other serious health problems. These issues are often exacerbated by industrial processes for developing textiles, glass, paper, ammunition and more.

Nawaz’s solution is to develop metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), three-dimensional grids of organic molecules and metals, to extract heavy metals from water. The team’s work is novel for both the materials it uses and how it can be put into action.  

“Our approach, our material is innovative, especially because we are focusing simultaneously on heavy metal and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances),” said Nawaz. To his and Sanchez’s knowledge, the MOFs are the first to combine treatment of heavy metals and PFAS in water. This work is a part of environmental health scientist and School of Public Health Assistant Professor Alison P. Sanders’ Rust to Resilience initiative, which recently received a Pitt Momentum Funds Scaling Grant to continue their research.

Conducting this work within the Sustainable Design Labs, recognized as a Pitt Green Lab for the team’s commitment to adopting best practices around reducing waste, reusing materials and recycling, means they are minimizing the environmental impact of their work. 

“MOFs are a promising alternative due to their high surface area and ability to be tailored for specific pollutants like arsenic,” Nawaz said, nodding to the potential for their designs to be customized to target heavy metals like lead, chromium and cadmium as well as PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” which have been around since the 1950s in household items, packaging, clothing and more.

Their latest iteration of the MOF uses the rare earth metal lanthanum due to its adaptability to and potential for stronger interactions with targeted pollutants based on its unique electronic properties, an approach that proved effective in a 2023 publication.

“We tested it on arsenic, and it showed significant amounts of removal — over 90% removal for these heavy metals,” said Sanchez, who also serves as associate director for the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. “We got into it because it is rather new and scalable in terms of application. But the ultimate goal is to enable and improve human quality of life for communities suffering from environmental pollution.”

Making an impact from Pittsburgh to Pakistan

Nawaz was inspired to study ways to address arsenic pollution during his upbringing in Pakistan, where the pollutant is an issue that affects around 60 million people. This designation came after researchers found that nearly two-thirds of groundwater samples collected in the country surpassed the WHO-recommended arsenic threshold of 10 micrograms per liter of water, with some readings reaching 20 times that amount.

Upon completing his coursework at the Government College University Faisalabad in Pakistan, Nawaz sought more resources to continue his work in the U.S. He applied for the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan’s International Research Support Initiative Program, which offers full-time doctoral students a research fellowship abroad. A requirement, Nawaz said, was to secure acceptance and a supervisor from a top-ranked university. He applied to ten schools, but having discovered Sanchez’s work online, said Pitt was his top choice.

The two met over Zoom to discuss Nawaz’s research and outline a plan. He arrived in Pittsburgh in 2023 and has secured additional funding through 2025. “I was very fortunate to connect with Dr. David,” he said.

Nawaz now plans to modify the design to increase the number of pollutants it can deal with. He dedicates eight hours each day in the lab during the week, and sometimes comes in on weekends. Time is of the essence, he said, as he is eager to bridge the gap between the research and communities that would benefit from practical application.

“Funds permitting, it would be helpful to collect more data on Pittsburgh’s water and samples from different industries,” he said, noting that his team has PFAS data on U.S. canals and rivers nationwide but would like to expand on the existing database for Pennsylvania. “I can check the water quality and apply the material against it.”

The city, he added, is ideal because it has three major rivers that intersect urban and rural landscapes, which can provide an authentic picture of the quality of the state’s water.

Ultimately, Nawaz and Sanchez envision deploying the MOFs in water treatment plants, industrial centers, superfund sites and communities facing environmental pollution. Even in this early phase, their work is sparking interest.

“We continue to publish our research and have had people from different countries reach out to us to request step-by-step guidance,” said Nawaz. “Collaboration will be essential to obtaining practical solutions and expanding our research [to ensure] we can customize our material designs for legacy and emerging contaminants.”


— Kara Henderson, photography by Tom Altany