Water decontamination scientist named new Langford Professor of Chemistry
Dr. Steve Opoku-Duah is working to bring clean water and ‘living water’ to the globe.
Dr. Steve Opoku-Duah, associate professor of chemistry, has much to celebrate this month. His biography was released, he was named Paul B. Langford Endowed Professor of Chemistry, and he was recognized for his service on an international discipline-based committee recommending fellowship funding. These are just the latest achievements in the long journey he began about 50 years ago as an indigent child, heeding his mother’s insistence to focus on God, school and self-control that has led him to becoming a contributing academician in his chosen field of chemistry.
As a seven-year-old boy from the ancient Ashanti tribe in the west African country of Ghana, Opoku-Duah walked two miles to the river every morning before school to collect drinking water for the day. The small village where he was born and spent the first 12 years of his life lacked basic water service, a fundamental human need for health and wellbeing that remains a challenge for 10 percent of the world’s population.
His inspiring journey from an impoverished child to a contributing academician in his chosen field of chemistry is told in his book, Transcended: Story of an African Science Professor Changing Lives in America. Opoku-Duah talks about his traumatic childhood with a polygamist father who had more wives and children than he could support. His mother, grandmother and six sisters sacrificed much of what little they had to help pay for him, the family’s only male child, to attend a regimental British mission high school in the city. It was there that he had access to clean drinking water for the first time in his life and learned from his American Peace Corps biology teacher how dirty water made people sick. “The water was always something that bothered me – why we could not get clean water in the village,” said Opoku-Duah.
“My mother was a very strong Christian who insisted her children always focus on three things: God, school and self-control,” said Opoku-Duah. “I was an athlete, a soccer player, and in African countries soccer is mainly played on Sunday mornings. I knew if I skipped church to play soccer, I was in big trouble. But, one Sunday morning, I skipped church to go play soccer. My mother made me go hungry that entire day. I wasn't given any food until about 7 o’clock that night! ” He said, “Since that time, I said I was never going to stop focusing my attention on all three things that were so important to her. Her strict rules changed my life; even though she had no formal education, she knew the value of education. She always told me that it is the only way for an indigent boy like me to rise from poverty. I was determined to go to college.”
With only three colleges in Ghana, a country of 16 million, Opoku-Duah “broke his back” to be awarded a highly competitive scholarship to college, where he chose to study agricultural engineering, focusing on water. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering science from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology in Ghana, a master’s degree in water chemistry from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and a Ph.D. with post-doctoral research in environmental hydrology at Durham University in England.
“To qualify for scholarships abroad, again, I had to break my back,” he said. “How I ended up in Europe to study was a miracle. I had to compete with brilliant students from five countries for the few scholarships offered. After earning my bachelor’s degree in Ghana, I was able to study in Holland for two years. Then after that, I moved to England to continue with my Ph.D. I began to focus more attention on research and taught what I had done as a postdoc in England for a couple of years.”
While in England, Opoku-Duah attended a class led by Mike Moss, the dean of Bible at Ohio Valley University who every year would send Bible majors to England on a mission trip. He had read one of Moss’s pastoral books and wanted to hear him speak. Opoku-Duah said, “When we met he told me, ‘your accent sounds like somebody from our program at Lipscomb.’ I asked, ‘Where is he from?’ When he told me that he is from Ghana that started our conversation and I discovered that lo and behold, he had taught a friend of mine from high school. Then, talking about our professions and interests, Mike told me that there was a faculty position in chemistry open at OVU. After much prayer, my wife was convinced and we moved our young family to America for me to teach at OVU.”
Opoku-Duah is now a class leading hydrologist and chemist and a faculty member at Lipscomb University. His research focuses on development of new and cheaper water filtration technologies. Several years ago, working with a chemical engineer, Opoku-Duah helped to develop the idea of Katharos, which in Greek means clean. With a small scale prototype they called trash can technology because of its size, they developed technology that cleans dirty river water using UV lamps. In Africa, generators cannot be used but UV systems can work well. The lamps generate electricity that draws in ordinary air and the UV radiation breaks the oxygen into atoms that become very active radicals that kill bacteria and viruses by breaking into the cell wall in the DNA nucleus. Once all of the bacteria and viruses are killed, the water is filtered and clean enough to drink in about an hour. Opoku-Duah published the results in two papers.
Scalability was a great challenge, so they employed electrophysics. This technology deploys electrocoagulation for breaking down recalcitrant C-F bonds in fluoroalkyl compounds in drinking water. One recent application was the removal of toxic microsystems in the drinking water originating from blue green algae in the St. Mary’s Lake in Celina, OH. The other was in Parkersburg,WV, where perfluorooctanoic acid, a subtype of a byproduct compound from making Teflon, had been discharged into the Ohio River. Opoku-Duah has published two papers and has submitted a book chapter on the results of these projects.
Since 2019, Opoku-Duah has taught chemistry at Lipscomb. He currently serves as chair of the Biochemistry & Chemistry Department and on the university’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Advisory Committee and Faculty Senate Academic Advisory Council. He was this year’s recipient of the university’s Award for Faculty Excellence in STEM.
This spring Opoku-Duah served on a discipline-based committee to recommend candidates for funding in the inaugural application cycle of Research Expertise from the Academic Diaspora Albanian Fellowship Program. Albanian academics in the Diaspora (specifically those now based in OECD member countries) apply for a fellowship that allows them to work with a matched Albanian host institution from one to 12 months. Engagement is expected to strengthen curriculum, research-based knowledge and graduate training in Albanian institutions and to foster ongoing collaborations, institutional linkages and innovations. This program, founded by the Albanian-American Development Foundation, is administered by the Institute of International Education.