New institute will focus on environmental molecular science

by William G. Gilroy

The University of Notre Dame has created a new Environmental Molecular Science Institute (EMSI) to bring engineers and scientists together to investigate the interaction between microparticles and heavy metals in the environment.p. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, researchers at the institute will work closely with their counterparts at Argonne, Oak Ridge and Sandia National Laboratories and DuPont Engineering Technology.p. Nano? and microparticles ? such as bacteria, natural organic matter and mineral aggregates ? although invisible to the human eye, exist in virtually all groundwater systems. An estimated 50 percent of the U.S population depends solely on groundwater supplies for drinking water. Groundwater is generally considered a safe source of drinking water, but pollutants from a variety of sources ? such as hazardous waste sites, landfills, chemical storage tanks, mining operations, road salt, and sewage spills? threaten to contaminate water supplies.p. “It is increasingly obvious from our poor record in cleaning up Super Fund sites, that we don’t understand the molecular-scale chemistry that is happening at contaminated sites,” said Jeremy B. Fein, associate professor of civil engineering and director of the new institute. “Our researchers are working to develop models that can be used to make groundwater cleanup efforts more efficient and to design more efficient containment treatment strategies.”p. Fein and his colleagues have found that the nano? and microparticles present in water can augment or retard the transport of contaminants. When heavy metals, such as lead, are dumped at a site, they may become attached to the cells walls of bacteria at the site. Once the metal binds with the bacteria, it becomes as mobile as the bacteria.p. The process of bacteria binding heavy metals or actinides is one of the main focal points of EMSI. The institute also will examine natural organic matter and mineral aggregates and their roles in the environment.p. The potential mobility of neptunium is another research focus of the institute. Neptunium is a by-product of the production of plutonium in nuclear reactors. Concerns about the potential impact of neptunium in the environment have heightened since President Bush recommended that Nevada’s Yucca Mountain facility become the national underground geologic repository of high-level nuclear waste.p. EMSI will also attempt to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the field of environmental science. In partnership with the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, Inc. (the GEM Consortium), EMSI is developing a master’s program specifically for talented undergraduate minority students.p. Fein, Peter C. Burns, Massman Professor of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, and Patricia A. Maurice, associate professor of civil engineering and geological sciences and director of the Center for Environmental Science and Technology, are principal investigators for EMSI.p.

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