eNews July 2020

Meet the Researcher, Antonio Lara, Associate Professor, New Mexico State University

By Jeanette Torres, NM WRRI Program Coordinator

This month we are meeting Antonio Lara, who is currently an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at New Mexico State University (NMSU). Antonio avidly researches how to use clay pellets to effectively reduce uranium and heavy metal concentration levels in contaminated water sources. According to Lara, his Chemistry 100 class is used to help students gain a passion for the sciences, have more confidence in their learning, and build upon fundamentals to help them succeed. He regularly challenges himself to develop new and exciting strategies to make chemistry more appealing to his students, and show them that anyone can excel when they put their mind to it.

Lara received his BS (1972) and MS (1977) from NMSU in Math Education, and Organic Chemistry, respectively. He returned to NMSU to complete his PhD in Analytical Chemistry in 1990. Once his education was completed, he had the opportunity to become a Postdoctoral Researcher at Michigan State University in 1991 working under the guidance of Dr. Thomas Pinnavaia, who was an experienced chemist who specialized in clay materials.

Currently, Lara receives funding every year from the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) to help research the process of converting non-potable water to potable water using clay pellets. Lara’s research on clays provides a cost effective and sustainable method for removing uranium and heavy metals from drinking water due to their cation exchange capabilities. The sorption capacity of the clay pellets is large enough to not only sorb non-bonded uranium, but also sorb uranium directly from contaminated water. As a result, clay pellets as well as powders are effectively able to reduce uranium concentrations from 15 times the Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level to non-detectable limits. While his research is still ongoing, water is currently being trucked out to the Navajo Nation to help aid in the crisis intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lara hopes to be able to contribute more to the cause as soon as possible through his research and findings. Antonio’s latest publication is entitled, Natural clays with an inherent uranium component that nevertheless sequester uranium from contaminated water. This article is one of two that illustrate the current status of his clay pellet research, and two other publications are currently in progress.

Antonio currently mentors students at all grade levels and strives to teach them the value of their research. Several of his students have been funded by the Student Water Research Grant Award program offered by NM WRRI. Moticha Franklin is his latest student to be funded in 2019 for research entitled, Surface Area of a Local Clay Material to Elucidate Uranium Abatement for Potable New Mexico Water Management. More information regarding her research can be found here. Three of Lara’s students, Moticha Franklin, Joshua Herrera, and Jeremy Jones,  successfully presented posters showcasing their research at the 64th Annual New Mexico Water Conference.

Lara has several important future goals for reducing pollution and advancing science literacy.  Pollution is a major problem in the borderland region, and Antonio believes a large portion of it is due to soot production, and the amount of car travel at the border. To assist with issues related to soot, Lara developed an early build of a clay kiln in Juarez, Mexico, that did not pollute the air by creating black smoke. By performing further research and publishing his methods, he hopes to provide effective alternatives to combat air pollution and enhance the lives of many people who suffer from poor air quality. He would also like to set up a workshop to better inform the public about their personal responsibilities to the environment, what they can do to clean it up, and teach them that water is a precious resource that must be protected regardless of cost.