EPSCoR seed grants awarded for environmental research
C.P. Huang will lead research on the impact of environmental nanoparticles on water quality.
Harsh Bais, right, and Kirk Czymmek will study plants that can remediate contaminated sites.
Pei Chiu, left, pictured with Yan Jin, will lead a team that will consider the use of biochar as a soil additive.

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12:52 p.m., Jan. 7, 2010----The Delaware EPSCoR office has awarded three seed grants to investigators whose projects address environmental challenges in Delaware.

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EPSCoR, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, is a federal program that helps states develop their research initiatives and academic institutions.

The National Science Foundation's EPSCoR is the largest and locally includes the University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Wesley College and Delaware Technical and Community College.

The three seed grants are as follows:

Impact of environmental nanoparticles on water quality

C. P. Huang, Donald C. Phillips Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Delaware, will investigate the effect and impact of environmental nanoparticles on water quality.

Huang's collaborators include S. Ismat Shah, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UD, and Qiquan Wang, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at Delaware State University.

“This is a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional effort,” said Donald L. Sparks, director of the Delaware Environmental Institute at UD and the principal investigator who oversees the research being funded by Delaware EPSCoR.

Huang, Shah and Wang will examine the group of chemicals referred to as “pharmaceuticals and personal care products,” or PPCPs.

“The state of Delaware is known for its strong chemical industry and agricultural activities,” said Huang. “Pharmaceuticals, fragrances, cosmetics, sunscreens, personal hygiene products and nutritional supplements are consumed daily for various purposes.

“PPCPs, such as acetaminophen, benadryl, caffeine, cholesterol, cocaine, ibuprofen, morphine, penicillin, saccharin, testosterone, tetracycline and warfarin are common chemicals that are expected to be present in the state's water systems,” Huang added. “Our research will provide information on the distribution of PPCPs in Delaware water systems in relation to aquatic nanoparticles.”

The team plans to design an electrically assisted cross flow filtration system (EACF) and use it to test PPCP adsorption onto nanoparticles.

“Aquatic particles, especially those that are nanometer-sized, are important in controlling the transport and transformation of contaminants,” said Huang. “We have chosen to examine the group of chemicals broadly represented by the term 'pharmaceuticals and personal care products' because no information is yet available on the uptake and distribution of PPCPs by aquatic nanoparticles.”

Plants that can remediate contaminated sites

University of Delaware scientists Harsh Bais, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Kirk Czymmek, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and Sparks, the S. Hallock du Pont Chair in soil and environmental chemistry, will explore how Alyssum murale plants take up, process and store environmental contaminants like nickel (Ni).

“Industrial production and agricultural practices have left the state of Delaware with a large number of contaminated sites,” said Bais. “Contamination of soil and water by metals such as nickel present a significant challenge at many of those sites.”

As the state's population grows, said Bais, there is pressure to develop farmland and redevelop urban brownfield sites.

“Remediation of brownfield sites is expensive, so the prospect of using hyperaccumulators, plants that can accumulate metals from soils to concentrations that are higher than those in the soil, offers an attractive method for remediating sites in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly manner,” said Bais. “We think that hyperaccumulator plants like Alyssum murale have the potential to remediate nickel in contaminated sites by absorbing or storing detoxified forms of it, but we need to determine how that works.”

Czymmek will assist the Bais research group with techniques such as energy filtered transmission electron microscopy and confocal microscopy to localize and map nickel. Sparks' research group will employ synchrotron-based techniques to speciate nickel in the plants and soils.

“This project integrates the scientific fields of plant and soil sciences to answer broad, complex questions about cellular biochemistry and rhizosphere chemistry,” said Bais.

Working toward agricultural sustainability

Pei Chiu, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UD, Paul Imhoff, associate professor in that department, and Mingxin Guo, associate professor in the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Delaware State University, will attempt to determine how biochar -- charcoal created by pyrolysis of waste biomass -- reduces emissions of the greenhouse gases CH4 and N20 when applied to agricultural soil.

“Biochar can sequester carbon for long periods and, as will be studied in this project, reduce emissions of N2O and CH4 from agricultural land,” said Chiu. “Thus, the development of biochar as a soil additive, particularly from poultry litter, could provide a significant benefit to the state of Delaware's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The scientists will use biochar produced from agricultural waste materials, such as poultry litter, to test their hypothesis in the laboratory.

Chiu noted that producing biochar this way could help make agriculture more sustainable, because land application of fertilizers would be reduced, and the volumes of waste produced by agriculture could be re-used.

“The benefit will be even greater if emissions of CH4 and N2O from soils are lessened,” said Chiu. “The results from this project will support the development of a new market for poultry litter in the state of Delaware -- the conversion of poultry litter to biochar. In addition, producing biochar can reduce nutrient loads to Delaware watersheds, supporting efforts by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.”

Amy Broadhurst, EPSCoR project administrator, said this year's seed grants were selected by a group of faculty members from the University of Delaware based on the quality of the proposed research, its applicability to state environmental issues, and the strength of the collaborations.

“It is our expectation that the EPSCoR seed grants will launch exciting scientific projects that will gain additional grant funding and lead to publications in high-impact peer-reviewed journals,” said Sparks.

Article by Katie Ginder-Vogel

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