Environment

A Colorado School of Mines professor is working to remove chemicals and potentially harmful substances from the groundwater supply in Fountain, Colorado.

Chris Bellona, assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, and a team of researchers have just finished Phase I of their project, testing different ways to remove perfluoroalkyl substances from the city’s groundwater supply.

“Various municipalities across the U.S. are struggling with these perfluoroalkyl substances,” Bellona said.

Perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, are a large group of man-made chemicals used in a wide variety of products, often to make them more stain-resistant, waterproof or nonstick. The health effects of PFASs in humans are not well understood, but studies have found that animals exposed at high levels resulted in changes in the function of the liver, thyroid and pancreas, and changes in hormone levels.

Communities near airports and firefighting training areas that have used aqueous film-forming foams to fight fuel fires have been especially affected.

“The chemicals that are in these foams get into the ground and into the groundwater and they are mobile and they don’t break down,” Bellona said. “In the U.S., there’s an estimated five million people who have these chemicals in their drinking water supplies.”

This includes municipalities near Colorado Springs. The three utilities that still have groundwater available for use are Security, Widefield and Fountain. This led to Bellona’s current project, “Pilot scale evaluation of the efficacy of granular activated carbon for perfluoroalkyl substance removal at the City of Fountain.”

“We starting working with the city of Fountain because they traditionally use groundwater part of the year and their levels of PFOA and PFOS exceed the EPA health advisory limit,” Bellona said. “They are going to need to put in a treatment system using granular activated carbon (GAC). They approached us to do a pilot scale study.”

GACs can be made in different ways, but it is usually coal burned in the absence of oxygen, then activated. With a large surface area, GACs can absorb large amounts of contaminants.

“The PFASs are relatively hydrophobic, so they stick to the carbon,” Bellona said. “Activated carbon works for a variety of contaminants, but eventually becomes exhausted. Part of this study was to look at how long we could operate the carbon before we have breakthrough of the contaminants.”

The study evaluated four different carbons side by side for the city’s groundwater.

“There are a lot of carbon options but it hasn’t been established which could be most effective,” Bellona said. “The goal of this project is to learn more by using four commercially available options.”

The next phase will compare the effectiveness of the top-performing activated carbon option to ion exchange, another way of filtering perfluoroalkyl substances, and the cost-benefit trade-offs.

“Ion exchange is more expensive but it can be regenerated on site; however, you have to deal with this waste stream,” Bellona said. “That may be more advantageous than dealing with the spent carbon residual. In addition, ion exchange resin may provide for longer treatment for these compounds compared to activated carbon.”

“These compounds are very recalcitrant and there is no silver bullet that has been developed for treatment,” Bellona said. “We aren’t only looking at these substances above the health advisory level. We are looking at a wide variety of these substances and how well activated carbon works on them.”

On this research project, Bellona has been working with diverse faculty and staff from the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and the Advanced Water Technology Center including associate professor Chris Higgins, professor Tzahi Cath, research assistant Tani Cath, lab manager Kate Spangler, research associate and facility manager Mike Veres, as well as Charlie Liu, a doctoral student in Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.  

 

CONTACT
Joe DelNero, Digital Media and Communications Manager, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3326 | jdelnero@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu

Colorado School of Mines professor Andrew HerringA Colorado School of Mines professor is part of a team of researchers working to develop a commercially viable fertilizer that farmers could produce themselves using agricultural wastewater.

Andrew Herring, professor of chemical and biological engineering, is a principal investigator on the $2.4 million, four-year research project being funded by the National Science Foundation and led by the University of Arkansas.

The goal is to develop a chemical process that can take the nitrogen and phosphorus in wastewater and create the fertilizer struvite, a crystallized mineral made up of magnesium, ammonium and phosphate. Struvite is also commonly formed as kidney stones in cats and dogs. 

The model system will use the effluent from an Arkansas hog farm, but the team hopes that the technology will eventually have wide applicability.

“Basically, you’d have a hog barn and you’d collect the liquid effluent from the farm and run it through a reactor and you’d get a solid fertilizer out of the back and, hopefully, energy,” Herring said. “At the end of the day, we hope to optimize this thing so it makes energy, saves water and produces fertilizer for food production.”

Herring will build an electrochemical reactor at bench scale to precipitate struvite from wastewater plus added magnesium. What is learned at Mines will ultimately feed into a farm-scale reactor, most likely at an agricultural experiment station at the University of Arkansas.

”This is an exciting project,” Herring said, “as no one can yet recycle agricultural phosphorous, and preventing its entry into aquifers will prevent algal blooms.”

Herring and lead principal investigator Lauren Greenlee, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Arkansas, have been collaborating for a number of years on research at the water-energy-food nexus. They will also be working with another assistant professor, Julie Renner from Case Western Reserve University, on using peptide engineering to further modify the project’s electrochemical output. 

Three other researchers from the University of Arkansas will study the composition, chemistry and viability of the struvite fertilizer compared to commercial fertilizers; the economics of implementing the technology; and the life cycle of the proposed technology.  

“For farmers, the bottom line is so tight that they don’t want to be buying fertilizer,” Herring said. “With this technology, for a very low capital cost the farmer would be able to buy a unit where they would be able to use their farm’s own waste to produce a more widely applicable fertilizer.”

Photo credit: University of Arkansas

CONTACT
Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3361 | erusch@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu

Fleckenstein delivers his talk.A Colorado School of Mines adjunct professor of petroleum engineering delivered a talk about hydraulic fracturing to the Weld County Council, which he will also take on his world tour as a Society of Petroleum Engineers distinguished lecturer for 2017-2018.

Will Fleckenstein presented "Shale Development —  Does Cheap Energy Really Mean Flaming Tap Water?" to the council July 17. He will deliver the same presentation at locations around the world, with talks already scheduled in Vancouver, Edmonton and Clairmont in Canada, and Comodoro Rivadavia and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

In light of the Firestone, Colo., home explosion in April related to an abandoned gas flowline, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission ordered that all oil and gas lines within 1,000 feet of a building be tested. Shortly after the incident, nearly 3,000 wells across the state of Colorado, many in Weld County, were temporarily shut down until further inspections could be performed. As of July, the Greeley Tribune reports that few of these lines failed.

Fleckenstein spoke with the Weld County Council about hydraulic fracturing, its history and how to protect aquifers during the “fracking” process. Having conducted a research study on the Wattenberg Field sponsored by the National Science Foundation, he was able to bring practical results to the table. Fleckenstein’s research found that 10 wells out of 18,000 had leakage, and said if a well is properly drilled and completed, the chance of leakage is very small compared to older methods.

Photo courtesy of Linda Kane, Weld County Council.

Contact:
Agata Bogucka, Communications Manager, College of Earth Resource Sciences & Engineering | 303-384-2657 | abogucka@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu
 

Assistant chemistry professor Shubham Vyas works in his lab at Colorado School of Mines.Shubham Vyas, assistant professor of chemistry at Colorado School of Mines, has been awarded $417,643 by the National Science Foundation to study the breakdown of perfluorinated chemicals in the environment.

Perfluoroalkyl acids, or PFAAs, are synthetic chemicals that were previously used in firefighting foams and coatings for carpets, textiles and paper. They are known to be extremely resistant to biological and natural degradation and are listed as global persistent organic pollutants of concern. 

“In the last two decades, people have come up with technologies to break these compounds but many of these technologies are not field-deployable,” Vyas said. “You can use γ-radiation to break these compounds but you’ll break everything else, too. You can use 3.6 volts of power, but water breaks at much lower voltages. All these techniques work in lab, in a test tube, but we can’t use them in the field.”

Vyas’ three-year grant, funded through the NSF’s Environmental Chemical Sciences Program, will allow researchers to figure out exactly how PFAAs break down and what intermediates are involved and then take that information to design new field-deployable techniques to aid in their degradation. 

“Once we figure out how they are breaking, we can devise new technologies and new approaches to degrade these compounds,” Vyas said. 

His research team will utilize both chemical computation and experimental methods, a unique approach for tackling an issue that has both local and global impacts. 

Near Colorado Springs, the communities of Fountain, Security and Widefield south of Petersen Air Force Base are all grappling with drinking-water contamination stemming from the use of a PFAA-based firefighting foam at the base

In May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory for two types of PFAAs, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), establishing drinking water limits of 70 parts per trillion.

“Research herein will be transformative with respect to the growing need to remove PFAAs from contaminated water supplies, especially when more than 6 million people are exposed to drinking water above the health advisory levels set by the U.S. EPA,” Vyas said.  

CONTACT
Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3361 | erusch@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu

REU program participants share their research at the poster session.

Students from universities across the United States and Ireland participating in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs at Colorado School of Mines presented their work at a poster session last week.

Forty-two students presented their research covering topics in renewable energy, water infrastructure, chemistry and chemical engineering at the poster session held on July 27, 2017.  Mines hosts three REU programs through the Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, the Engineering Research Center for Reinventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure and Advancing Polymer Materials by Integrating Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. These programs support the education and training of undergraduate students in a closely mentored independent research setting.

“Undergraduate research programs exist to help students transform themselves into contributing members of the professional research community,” said Physics Teaching Professor Chuck Stone, director of the renewable energy REU summer program.

“I learned that research can be very frustrating,” said Mines mechanical engineering student Gretchen Ohlhausen. “But it’s very rewarding when you finally get the results you are looking for. This has made me want to get a master’s and work in research for the rest of my life.”

During the REU programs, some students had the opportunity to work across disciplines.

“I’m studying to be a mechanical engineer but I worked in a chemical engineering research lab,” said Mines mechanical engineering student Brockton Sterling. “I found that blending the two together really helped me. This experience shifted my interests quite a bit.”

In addition to the laboratory research, students participated in the Joint Networking Program for Front Range REU Students and Summer Interns on June 28. This event brought together undergraduate STEM majors from across campus and nearby internship and research programs to discuss topics including ethics in science and engineering, how to present scholarly research and transitioning academic skills into a career in STEM fields.

"The most important component of our undergraduate research enterprise is the Mines faculty and research staff that selflessly contribute their time, energy and expertise to our students," Stone said. "Initial, thoughtful, one-on-one training sessions with both an REU student and his or her peer mentor eventually leads to independence in the research environment. Along with this, students augment their research experience with a curricular thread that includes field trips to other research centers within the Front Range, a hands-on laboratory program, professional development sessions and weekly technical seminars. Joint networking programs with other nearby REUs and summer internship groups provide a social network that fosters an appreciation of other STEM areas.”

“I would definitely recommend this program,” Sterling said. “It’s very flexible and the amount of information you learn is great.”

At the end of the poster session, five students received awards for best poster presentations and best technical achievement:

Best Technical Achievement

  • Clare Lanaghan, Iowa State University, Faculty Mentor: Jeff Squier, Physics

Best Presentation

  • Austin Shelton, Morehouse College, Faculty Mentor: Jason Porter, Mechanial Engineering
  • Mayassa Gregoire, St. Joseph’s College, Faculty Mentor: Lakshmi Krishna, Physics
  • Rileigh Casebolt, Bucknell University, Faculty Mentor: Carolyn Koh, Chemical Engineering
  • Will Schenken, Colorado School of Mines, Faculty Mentor: Reuben Collins, Physics

 

2017 REU Summer Poster Session

CONTACT
Joe DelNero, Digital Media and Communications Manager, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3326 | jdelnero@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu

Nicholas Rummel is sailing on the SSV Robert C. Seamans research vessel.

A Colorado School of Mines student sailed across the Pacific Ocean to conduct research near the remote Phoenix Islands.

Nicholas Rummel, a rising senior in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, participated in an eight-week program with SEA Semester where he conducted research in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). PIPA is one of the last remaining coral wildernesses on Earth. Roughly the size of California, it is the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage site in the world located about halfway between Hawaii and Fiji.

"I chose SEA’s Protecting the Phoenix Islands program because I wanted to be pushed outside of my comfort zone in both physically and academically," Rummel said. "This program gave me the flexibility to apply skills and passion to an environmental problem that I feel is important to the global community."

Rummel, along with 23 other undergraduate students from across the U.S., collected samples from the marine environment to study the impact of El Niño, a large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction connected to a periodic warming in the sea’s surface temperatures across the Equatorial Pacific that affects weather patterns and ocean conditions, and assess the effects of climate change. The results will contribute to a greater understanding of the marine ecosystem and environmental management goals.

"One aspect of my research required me to pull on a geostatistical method called kriging in order to have a better understanding of tuna larvae populations," Rummel said. "Mines and the research I have done in my undergraduate career here at Mines prepared me well to get a lot done on a short voyage."

The SEA Semester program started in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on June 12, where students developed their own research projects in ocean science or conservation policy and completed preparatory coursework. For the next five weeks, Rummel sailed roughly 800 nautical miles aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, one of the most sophisticated research sailing school vessels ever built in the United States, before returning to America Samoa for the program’s conclusion on August 11.

Read about Rummel's experience on the SEA Semester blog.

CONTACT
Joe DelNero, Digital Media and Communications Manager, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3326 | jdelnero@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu

Two Colorado School of Mines microbiologists have coauthored an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that examines the widespread impact of a paper, published a quarter-century ago, suggesting that microbial life exists up to several kilometers deep throughout the Earth’s subsurface.

The deep, hot biosphere: Twenty-five years of retrospection” appears in the July 3, 2017, issue of PNAS and was written by Mines Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor John Spear and postdoctoral fellow Blake Stamps with Montana State University’s Eric Boyd, Saroj Poudel and Daniel Colman.

The authors say “The Deep Hot Biosphere,” written by Thomas Gold and published in PNAS in 1992, “heavily influenced the scientific field of geobiology, bringing together researchers from the disparate fields of geology, geochemistry and microbiology.” Gold’s paper, which was followed by a book with the same title, “forever altered how scientists think about microbial life in the subsurface and its implications for the origins of life on Earth, as well as life beyond our planet,” the authors said.

Gold, an Austrian-born astrophysicist and professor of astronomy at Cornell University, did not have a doctorate, but was a highly recognized scientist. He authored more than 300 papers, and had a tendency to delve into fields beyond his own.

According to Spear et al., “Gold’s deep, hot biosphere contribution challenged paradigms in subsurface science, petroleum research, the origin and evolution of life, and the search for life on other planets.”

While some found logic in Gold’s ideas, and others argued that they were highly flawed, the authors note that they had a tremendous impact on scientific discourse—the article has been cited more than 325 times, often outside the field of astrophysics, and the book remains a top seller on Amazon.

Life on Earth is dependent upon microorganisms in the subsurface—bacteria and archaea—and their ability to cycle and recycle chemical compounds necessary for life on the surface, both deep under continents and under the oceans. But despite intense study in the 25 years since Gold’s paper, the researchers argue that key questions remain about life in the deep subsurface, “including its origins, extent and contribution to hydrocarbon formation worldwide.”

The scientists also touch on emerging data and approaches to studying the subsurface that continue to provide promising new hints toward answering these questions. Their review further expands on how the field of geobiology also may help answer questions relevant to industry such as hydrocarbon degradation, and form beneficial partnerships that would allow further study of the subsurface.

“As Gold suggested, and is becoming increasingly evident, to better understand the subsurface is critical to further understanding the Earth, life, the evolution of life and the potential for life in the solar system and worlds beyond,” researchers said.

The scientists conclude by suggesting the need to develop a robust network of interdisciplinary scientists and accessible locations for long-term monitoring of the Earth’s subsurface in the form of a deep subsurface microbiome initiative. The hope, said Spear, is to be able to understand how Earth functions as a large organism dependent upon something we know biologically little about—the subsurface.

Contact:
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu
Ashley Spurgeon, Assistant Editor, Mines Magazine | 303-273-3959 | aspurgeon@mines.edu

Mines hosted the American Chemical Society's 2017 Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy.

Colorado School of Mines hosted the American Chemical Society’s 2017 Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy from June 21 to 26, giving students opportunities to explore potential solutions to global challenges.

The weeklong residential program brought more than 50 graduate and postdoctoral scholars to Mines for lectures, collaborative projects, poster sessions, open discussions and networking sessions. Experts from the University of Notre Dame, Queen’s University, the University of Pittsburgh, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Colorado School of Mines, among others, led the talks covering topics such as greener solvents, building a green business and greening fossil fuels.

“Solvents are a real environmental concern associate with chemical industry,” said Ryan Richards, professor of chemistry and associate vice president of research at Mines. “One of the projects the students do in teams is choosing the greenest solvent. The exercise has students examine a chemical process and its life cycle before choosing the greenest solvent for that process.”

The summer school has been hosted by Mines almost every year for the past decade.

“Mines has several faculty who have contributed to the program over the years, and NREL has also provided a number of the key instructors,” Richards said. “This gives Mines students and faculty a great opportunity to showcase all of the great people, research and infrastructure we have here.”

 

CONTACT
Joe DelNero, Digital Media and Communications Manager, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3326 | jdelnero@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu

A Colorado School of Mines associate professor of chemical and biological engineering has been recognized for her research into capturing mercury and carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants and preventing their release into the atmosphere.

Jennifer Wilcox was awarded the 2017 Arthur C. Stern Award for Distinguished Paper, which is given annually for an outstanding contribution to the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association. The paper, titled “Heterogenous Mercury Reaction Chemistry on Activated Carbon,” was published in 2011 with coauthors Erdem Sasmaz, Abbigail Kirchofer and Sang-Sup Lee.

Jennifer WilcoxThe work examines materials that can oxidize mercury, allowing it to be captured. “Coal burning is the number one anthropogenic source of mercury emissions worldwide,” Wilcox said. “This work leads to a deeper understanding of how materials may be modified for more effective mercury removal from exhaust streams of coal-fired power plants,” said the citation from the Air & Waste Management Association.

The award is based on the publication of a paper in JA&WMA that has greatly advanced science and technology; is technical, scientific or management in nature, while advancing the mission of JA&WMA; and is considered to be a substantial contribution toward improving our understanding of air pollution and waste management problems, their impact on environment and health, and the use of sustainable practices in reducing our environmental footprint.

Wilcox also received a Best Presentation Award in the Fall 2016 session of the American Chemical Society, which led to an invitation to publish in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research. The paper, titled “Effect of Water on the CO2 Adsorption Capacity of Amine-Functionalized Carbon Sorbents," was subsequently featured on the cover of the journal’s May 31, 2017, issue. Wilcox’s coauthors were Peter Psarras and Jiajun He.

The exhaust of coal-fired power plants is comprised mostly of nitrogen, with near-equal amounts of water vapor and CO2, Wilcox said. Because water is often more reactive than CO2, it is important to design materials that have an affinity for carbon dioxide. “This work, through a combination of modeling and experiments, shows a novel material with promise for the selective removal of CO2 from coal-fired power plant exhaust in the presence of water vapor and acid gases,” Wilcox said

Contact:
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu
Ashley Spurgeon, Assistant Editor, Mines Magazine | 303-273-3959 | aspurgeon@mines.edu

Colorado School of Mines Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Marte Gutierrez, Petroleum Engineering Professor Azra Tutuncu and alumnus Luke Frash have been awarded the 2017 Applied Rock Mechanics Research Award by the American Rock Mechanics Association.


Luke Frash and Marte Gutierrez during a visit with Darren Mollot, Director of the Office of Clean Energy Systems in the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy.
Luke Frash and Marte Gutierrez showcase their research during a visit from Darren Mollot, Director of the Office of Clean Energy Systems in the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy.

Frash earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering with specialties in civil engineering and a PhD in civil and environmental engineering from Mines, studying under Gutierrez. He is now a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The team is receiving the award for their 2015 publication, “True-Triaxial Hydraulic Fracturing of Niobrara Carbonate Rock as an Analogue for Complex Oil and Gas Reservoir Stimulation.” The main topics of research, funded partially by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Unconventional Natural Gas and Oil Institute, were development of enhanced geothermal systems and hydraulic fracturing in shale oil and gas reservoirs.

“Well stimulation by hydraulic fracturing is a common method for increasing the injectivity and productivity of wells,” Gutierrez said. “This method is beneficial for many applications, including oil, gas, geothermal energy and CO2 sequestration; however, hydraulic fracturing in shale and other similarly complex geologies remains poorly understood.”

Seeking to bridge the gap in understanding, the team conducted research on large natural rock specimens using true-triaxal stresses, intended to represent field-scale complexities of known oil and gas reservoirs.

“Results from such large-scale hydraulic experiments, particularly on naturally heterogeneous rock samples, remain very limited,” Gutierrez said.

The research team developed special equipment to conduct these innovative field-scale experiments, and Gutierrez says “the results from the scale-model hydraulic fracturing experiments are envisioned to be of important value to the practice of hydraulic fracturing in several fields.”

The award will be presented during the 51st U.S. Rock Mechanics/Geomechanics Symposium in San Francisco, California, on June 25-28, 2017.

Support for the research was provided by the Unconventional Natural Gas and Oil Institute (UNGI) Coupled Integrated Multi Scale Measurements and Modeling Consortium (CIMMM), and the U.S. Department of Energy under DOE Grant No. DE-FE0002760, “Development and Validation of an Advanced Stimulation Prediction Model for Enhanced Geothermal Systems.”

Contact:
Agata Bogucka, Communications Manager, College of Earth Resource Sciences & Engineering | 303-384-2657 | abogucka@mines.edu
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 | ramirez@mines.edu

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