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USF professor who harnessed the power of cactuses is a top Florida inventor

Norma Alcantar has more than 22 patents based on a natural substance she found out about from her grandmother.
Norma Alcantar, 50, of Tampa, stands near a Prickly Pear cactus (opuntia ficus indica) at the USF botanical gardens Tuesday. A USF professor of chemical, biological and material engineering, Alcantar was inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of fame with 22 patents, with much of her work focused around using cactus plants for water filtration.
Norma Alcantar, 50, of Tampa, stands near a Prickly Pear cactus (opuntia ficus indica) at the USF botanical gardens Tuesday. A USF professor of chemical, biological and material engineering, Alcantar was inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of fame with 22 patents, with much of her work focused around using cactus plants for water filtration. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 5
Updated May 6

When Norma Alcantar got a call last month from Judy Genshaft, the former University of South Florida president, she wondered what had happened.

She was pleasantly surprised to hear that she would be inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame. Genshaft had nominated her for the honor.

For Alcantar, a professor of chemical engineering who holds 22 patents, it was recognition for a lifetime of work. Much of her research focuses on using the gooey fluid found in cactus leaves for water filtration — something she credits her grandmother for teaching her.

Alcantar, who grew up in Mexico City, joined USF as a professor in 2003. When she arrived, her lab wasn’t ready yet, but she’d already hired a postdoctoral researcher to work with her, she said.

They wondered what they could do without a lab.

Alcantar was studying lubrication and friction at the time, and her postdoc went to the library and suggested studying a friction mechanism for oil in snakes.

“I was like ‘snakes’?” Alcantar recalled. “No. I don’t like snakes. But that triggered my memory of something my grandma had taught me when I was in high school.”

Her grandmother, Balbina Zamora, had come to visit her and asked her about her day at school. Alcantar told her she was studying surfactants, chemicals used to reduce surface tension and clean water, clothes and hands.

Zamora said she knew all about them. Growing up, she was in charge of bringing river water to the farm she grew up on in Michoacan, Mexico with her own grandparents. Sometimes, if the water was dirty, she’d boil it with part of a cactus plant.

Alcantar questioned how adding something gooey would help.

Her grandmother told her it just does.

Alcantar told her postdoc about this, and because they didn’t have a lab, directed him to try “a quick and dirty experiment.”

“Two days later he came back and said ‘Yeah, it worked,’” she said.

Mud in the cactus water separated within 10 minutes compared to the other water sample without the cactus, which took about 18 hours, she said.

From there, they began looking at what was in the cactus and what they could learn from it. Certain sugars in the cactus fluid, called mucilage, have properties that bind with the contaminants. Further research created a powder from the fluid.

Researchers tested it with other sediments, bacteria, radioactive isotopes and oil, finding much success with a plant that can easily be grown in arid environments quickly. They tested it after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and Deepwater oil spill. The technologies have since been used in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Mexico for clean drinking water. Some of her patents have adapted the technology to treat Parkinson’s and some cancers.

Related: Prickly pear cactus could hold key to fighting oil spills, USF scientist says

“I was lucky to listen to my grandmother and discover all these things that are wonderful about natural materials,” Alcantar said.

Her grandmother died in 2008. But when Alcantar told her about the first grant she received for the cactus technology, her grandmother told her she knew it would work.

She credits her success to her grandmother and her mother, who encouraged her as a young woman to pursue science when she was debating whether to go a different route.

Alcantar is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors and recipient of a Fulbright Core Scholar award.

Her hall of fame induction is scheduled for November.

Paul Sanberg, a fellow USF professor and chair of the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame Advisory Board, called Alcantar a “powerhouse.”

The gelatinous fluid inside cactus leaves, called mucilage, has properties that bind with contaminants in water. That discovery by USF professor Norma Alcantar has resulted in technologies that have helped clean contaminated water in places around the world.
The gelatinous fluid inside cactus leaves, called mucilage, has properties that bind with contaminants in water. That discovery by USF professor Norma Alcantar has resulted in technologies that have helped clean contaminated water in places around the world. [ National Science Foundation ]

“Her work on water contamination is so socially important right now,” said Sanberg, who was on the hall of fame selection committee but did not vote for Alcantar because the two are from the same university.

“She takes her research as an academic and actually knows how to translate it and move it forward and share it,” Sanberg said.

When the hall of fame started, he said, many didn’t think of Florida as a place for inventions. But Alcantar, with six others this year, joins the ranks of Nobel Laureates and National Inventor Hall of Famers whose inventions had significant societal impact.

Equally significant, Sanberg said, are the contributions she’s made as a role model for young people entering the field, particularly young women and people from diverse backgrounds. She served as president of the National Academy of Inventors chapter at USF.

Encouraging diversity in science and innovation is important, Sanberg said. “People come with different perspectives, and that perspective comes with creativity that other people wouldn’t see.”

(Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correctly describe the role of surfactants. A previous version gave an incorrect description.)