Her trailblazing nature-based inventions are helping create a cleaner and healthier world.
TAMPA, Fla. (April 29, 2021) – University of South Florida professor Norma Alcantar — who engineered an ancient practice of cleaning water with cactus mucilage to create modern technologies — is among seven new inductees to the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame announced today.
Alcantar, who holds 22 patents, was lauded by the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame selection committee for her pioneering work in engineering natural products to create sustainable and non-toxic technologies for a wide range of applications. Much of her work has focused on using cactus mucilage as a purification system – a folk practice she first learned from her grandmother in Mexico who boiled the leaves of prickly pear cactus, known as nopales, to produce clean drinking water for her family.
A professor of chemical, biological and materials engineering at USF since 2003, Alcantar is also recognized for her support, mentoring and advocacy for women and people of color in the engineering fields. She is the first woman faculty member and first woman of color to start her professorial career as an assistant professor and navigate the ranks to full professor in the history of the USF College of Engineering. She also is the founder of the startup company Water, Health and Sustainability, LLC.
“I was humbly surprised to have found out that I was inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame. Thank you to Dr. Judy Genshaft, my nominator, and the selection committee for granting me this great honor,” Alcantar said. “I would like to dedicate this honor to my grandmother, Balbina Zamora, who whispered in my ear how we should learn from nature to solve practical problems. I would also like to recognize my mother, Arcelia Alcantar, who was instrumental in my education and energized me to pursue a career in science.”
Alcantar’s water filtration technology has attracted worldwide attention for its ability to remove contaminants, sediments, bacteria and heavy metals such as arsenic and oil. Soon after establishing her lab at USF and curious as to whether there was science that could explain the folk remedy, she found that carbohydrates in the cactus pulp bind to contaminants, allowing them to separate and be removed, producing clean water. She tested her invention in Port-au Prince, Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake when there was little to no drinking water access for victims. The technology also has been used in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Mexico.
Alcantar also has adapted the mucilage technology to other critical needs, such as cleaning water in fish farming and as an agent for cleaning up oil spills, a discovery made in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Her research in the use of the mucilage in the fight against Parkinson’s disease focuses on α-synuclein aggregation, a protein abundant in dopamine neurons that becomes toxic in Parkinson’s patients when it misfolds and aggregates into clumps. Low concentrations of the cactus extracts inhibit the aggregation process. She also has used the technology to develop a drug delivery system to treat ovarian, lung and brain cancers.
Alcantar earned her doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2000. She is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors, and recently was named a Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award, among many other honors.
In this year’s class of Florida Inventors Hall of Fame inductees, Alcantar joins noted inventors Dean Kamen, often referred to as the modern Thomas Edison due to the breadth and scope of his inventions, and Mark Dean, who holds three patents on the original IBM personal computer and is the co-inventor of the ISA bus, which revolutionized modern computing. The full list of inductees can be found here.
About the University of South Florida
The University of South Florida is a high-impact global research university dedicated to student success. Over the past 10 years, no other public university in the country has risen faster in U.S. News and World Report’s national university rankings than USF. Serving more than 50,000 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, USF is designated as a Preeminent State Research University by the Florida Board of Governors, placing it in the most elite category among the state’s 12 public universities. USF has earned widespread national recognition for its success graduating under-represented minority and limited-income students at rates equal to or higher than white and higher income students. USF is a member of the American Athletic Conference. Learn more at www.usf.edu.