ISTC scientists visit the UK to collaborate on emerging contaminant research

ISTC researchers John Scott, Beth Meschewski, and Lee Green traveled to the United Kingdom (UK) during the first week of February to discuss emerging contaminant issues with their international collaborators.

people sitting around a table in a small meeting room having a lively discussionISTC is one of six universities/organizations from U.S., UK, and France in an international working group called the International Freshwater Microplastics Network to reduce microplastics pollution in freshwater environments. The group met February 4-5, 2020, in a retreat meeting house on the campus of the University of Birmingham, UK. They shared information about recent projects, and then discussed the future of microplastics research.

The group agreed that writing yet another review paper on the status of microplastics in the environment and the research being done was NOT an effective strategy. Instead, they proposed several concrete research ideas, settling on pooling individually collected microplastics data to help develop more robust contamination models for both local and global scenarios. However, most studies report number of particles per volume of water sampled, but current models require an input of mass of plastic per unit volume. To address this issue, the group also wants to standardize the methods used for collection, analysis, and reporting.

While at U of Birmingham, they met with other colleagues to discuss methods development for the detection of various emerging contaminants. They are particularly interested in how emerging contaminants are taken up, transported, and re-released by microplastics.

The three ISTC scientists also visited the University of Plymouth to meet with a colleague working on marine plastic and additives associated with plastics. The Plymouth research group created a display board of 18 materials collected on beaches in the UK, only two of which were natural materials. The remainder were all plastic “rocks” that look very much like natural rocks. ISTC scientists found it difficult to identify two natural rocks just by looking at them. However, there was an obvious weight difference between similarly sized plastic and natural rocks once they picked them up.

grid of 16 objects on white paper labeled with "pyroplastics (-2)" starting from the top left, the two natural rocks are in position 2 across and 2 down. the other is in three down 5 across.
Grid of plastic “rocks” found by research group at U of Plymouth, UK. Only two are natural rocks (circled in red).

The ISTC team and the leader of the Plymouth research group spent some time analyzing black plastics by X-ray fluorescence. This method of analysis can determine the bulk elemental composition of these materials down to the part-per-million (ppm) range. Many of the samples tested contained very high concentrations (in the percent level) of bromine and antimony. If these two elements are present in plastics, it may indicate that the material was sourced  from electronic waste. ISTC researchers collected several of these black researchers around a small table looking at a laptop display of XRF instrament readings.plastics from the U of Plymouth group to analyze them for rare earth and precious metals. The rare earth and precious metals may be present at low concentrations (ppt-ppb) in the plastics if they were sourced from electronic waste. Black plastic is increasingly used in a wide range of products that can include electronics, food containers, packaging, construction materials, textiles, and so on. Many of the metals and additives associated with these materials are toxic to humans, so recycling of these plastics has the potential to increase human exposure to pollutants.

The ISTC team believes that the four new research projects discussed during the trip will make a significant impact in reducing emerging contaminants pollution at the international level.

ISTC researchers develop greener biofuels process

tall green grass

Kirtika Kohli and BK Sharma have been busy in the lab creating a greener delignification method for biofuels refinery processes. Many see biofuels as a viable alternative to fossil fuels because they are renewable and can reduce carbon emissions through plant growth. However, biomass needs to be processed before it can be converted to biofuels.

Lignin is a substance found in plants that makes them rigid and woody. Lignin helps plants resist rotting, so biomass harvested for biofuels must undergo a pre-treatment process to break down the lignin. Once lignin is removed, the remaining biomass could be easily converted to monomeric sugars, which can  be converted biochemically into biofuels and other components in a biorefinery. With some additional refinement, the extracted lignin has the potential to be used in other applications in biofuels, biolubricants, polymers, binders, and biochemicals.

Current delignification processes have limited industrial applications because of their high costs, toxicity, and inability to recycle/reuse the chemicals used in the process. The team’s new method is more efficient, economic, and less toxic than current processes. It should ease operation/maintenance requirements and the need for special equipment as well as increase cost-effectiveness and recyclability. Their process is able to extract 85-88% of the lignin from Birchwood and Miscanthus (the two biomasses tested).

The team also developed a new lignin quantification method. The delignification process developed dissolves lignin into a green solvent that can be directly used for the quantification using a UV-Vis spectrophotometer. This new method is easier and more accurate than older lignin quantification methods, which were based on weight of the lignin yields that resulted in rough estimates.

Their paper is in-press and available online in Bioresource Technology: Effective Delignification of Lignocellulosic Biomass by Microwave Assisted Deep Eutectic Solvents.

ISTC will feature biochar research at Fulton County Field Day

ISTC’s Wei Zheng will showcase his research project “Designer Biochar to Capture and Recycle Phosphorous from Tile Drainage Systems” at the Illinois Farm Bureau’s Fulton County Field Day on July 16.

Zheng and team have proposed to combine a woodchip bioreactor with designer biochar at the tile drain outlet to capture phosphorus within the biochar. The biochar can be removed from the bioreactor system periodically and spread over the field as a form of slow release phosphorus fertilizer. They predict that the system will prevent excess nutrients from the phosphorus from entering local waterways and, if used throughout Illinois farmlands, will help reduce Illinois nutrient load to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.

Besides an inside look at Zheng’s research, the Field Day will feature additional research tours on vegetative buffer strips and drainage water recycling at the MWRD site, 15779 County Road 5, Cuba, IL. Registration starts at 11 a.m., followed by the tours from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Attendance is free, and lunch will be provided. Pre-registration is still available by calling the Fulton County Farm Bureau at 309-547-3011 or emailing at fultonfb@att.net.

Registration is Open for Emerging Contaminants Conference

Join us on May 21-22 for the 2019 Emerging Contaminants in the Environment Conference (ECEC19). Registration will be open until May 3. View the draft agenda on the ECEC19 website.

About the Conference

ECEC19 will be held on May 21-22, 2019, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign, IL. This year the conference will expand beyond the aquatic environment to also include air and soil studies along with effects on human and animal health.

The conference will feature presentations and posters on the latest in emerging contaminant research, policies, and outreach. In addition, there will be plenty of opportunities for discussion and networking with those interested in all aspects of emerging contaminants in the environment.

Researchers, educators, businesses, government officials, regulatory agencies, policy makers, outreach and extension professionals, environmental groups, members of the general public, and medical, veterinary, and public health professionals are encouraged to attend the conference.

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant are cohosting this conference.

Keynote Speakers

  • Thomas Bruton – PFAS Research and Policy Lead, Green Science Policy Institute
  • Robert C. Hale – Professor of Marine Science, Virginia Institute of Marine Science
  • Susan D. Richardson – Arthur Sease Williams Professor of Chemistry, University of South Carolina

Read more about the keynotes.

Panelists

  • Thomas Burton – PFAS Research and Policy Lead, Green Science Policy Institute
  • Iseult Lynch – Professor and Chair of Environmental Nanosciences at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham
  • Yujie Men – Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Katie Nyquist – Principal Planner for the Contaminants of Emerging Concern Initiative at the Minnesota Department of Health
  • Heiko Schoenfuss – Director of Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory and Professor of Anatomy at St. Cloud State University
  • Krista Wigginton – Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Michigan

Read more about the panelists.

 

Agricultural Chemicals in the Environment: A Study on Nitrapyrin

For a number of farms in the Midwest, nitrapyrin is used to help hold nutrients in agricultural fields until the plants have a chance to use them. Nitrapyrin increases the availability of nitrogen fertilizer, which boosts crop production. Therefore, nitrapyrin can improve nitrogen use efficiency, reduce nutrient losses, and thereby mitigate eutrophication (excess nutrients spurring exponential growth of algae in lakes).

Nitrapyrin and other nitrogen inhibitors work by limiting the conversion of ammonium to nitrite (first step of nitrification). Nitrapyrin also restricts the formation of nitrate from nitrite (second step of nitrification).  Nitrate is one of the major contributors to eutrophication.

While the use of nitrapyrin has benefits, concerns have been raised about whether its runoff from fields into nearby rivers and streams could have an impact on bacteria and the nitrification process in those water bodies. Even though nitrapyrin has been used as nitrification inhibitor and soil bactericide since the early 1970s, there is limited information on its fate and transport from fields into aquatic ecosystems.

As an initial step to quantify the amounts of nitrapyrin present in fields and streams, ISTC researchers Wei Zheng and Nancy Holm collaborated with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to undertake a one-year study of its occurrence in seven streams and nearby farm fields in Iowa and Illinois. The team examined the concentrations of nitrapyrin, its metabolities, and three widely used herbicides – acetochlor, atrazine, and metolachlor – in soil and water samples.

Results from their recently published article showed that nitrapyrin was found in many of the samples. It was sorbed to soil particles, transported from fields via overland flow, and leached into subsurface drains. In addition, all three herbicides were found in the stream samples with atrazine being the most concentrated of the three, especially at peak application times.

This research project extends the previously published pilot study on nitrapyrin by the USGS and is the first to show the transport of nitrapyrin from fields to streams over an entire year. In addition, this study is the first to describe nitrapyrin transport via subsurface drains, although those concentrations were much lower than surface concentrations. Studies such as this can help provide decision makers with a better understanding of the fate of chemicals applied to agroecosystems.

Persistent Organic Pollutants on Microplastics Project expanded to include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

The Great Lakes are an important water and food source for both humans and animals. Anthropogenic contaminants such as microplastics, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are of increasing concern because of their potential impact on the environment and human health. Scientists lack understanding about many aspects of how these recently identified contaminants interact with the environment, aquatic species, and other potential contaminants.

With new funding from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) researcher John Scott and his team will be able to expand their research to include more environmental contaminants. With their current project on persistent organic pollutants in Lake Muskegon, they are studying the effects of microplastic type and deployment time in the sediments and the water column on sorption of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to the microplastic particles. This on going investigation includes legacy contaminants like chlorinated pesticides, polybrominated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The new funds will also allow the team to look at adsorption of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on the microplastics. PFASs are being found to be ubiquitous in the environment. This study will look at the role microplastics may play as a carrier of these compounds disperse them in water and sediment.

New ISTC Annual Report Now Available

ISTC’s annual report for the period July 1, 2017-June 30, 2018 is now available.  The report features ISTC’s technical and research efforts during the period. Highlights include ISTC’s success with winning awards for all five of the DOE grant applications that our researchers submitted in fall 2017. The report also details new initiatives such as solar panel recycling and free assessments for wastewater treatment plants to reduce operating costs. With these efforts, ISTC continues to advance sustainability in Illinois and beyond. Check out the report for more details.

New Legislative Request Regarding Contaminants of Emerging Concern in Illinois Wastewater Effluent

The Illinois governor recently signed House Bill IL-HB5741 that amends the University of Illinois Scientific Surveys Act. The new section 21 asks the Prairie Research Institute (PRI), which was established under the Scientific Surveys Act in 2008, to conduct a scientific literature review of chemicals identified in wastewater treatment plant effluents that are recognized as contaminants of emerging concern. It also requests that PRI compile a listing of the specific actions recommended by various state and federal agencies to address the environmental or public health concerns associated with the chemicals. PRI will provide its impartial report to the General Assembly by June 30, 2020.

Because of its long history of pollution prevention expertise, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute, will take the lead on this new effort. ISTC researchers have studied a variety of inorganic and organic environmental contaminants as well as developed methods for waste and pollution prevention. Recently much of their water quality research and public engagement activities have focused on chemicals of emerging concern in wastewater, surface water, and groundwater. ISTC staff members Nancy Holm, Laura Barnes, and Elizabeth Meschewski will be compiling the report.

Although the law requests a literature review of contaminants of emerging concern associated with wastewater treatment plant effluent, these contaminants also enter the environment from other sources. These include non-point sources, such as agricultural fields, and other point sources, such as large animal feeding operations, septic systems, and industrial operations.

PFASs: Complex Chemicals that Could Cause Catastrophic Contamination

WRITTEN BY: Margaret Golden, ISTC staff

When we think of chemicals that could be on our food, we usually think of the pesticides that are used to eliminate pests. We rarely think of the cookware that we use to prepare it. Maybe we should start.

One of the most common ways that people come in contact with chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) is through nonstick cookware. PFASs are a collection of man-made chemical compounds that include PFOA, PFOS, and newer GenX chemicals. They were created in the mid-twentieth century and have been used in manufacturing of various products ever since. They’re popular because they don’t degrade and can make products stain-resistant, waterproof, or non-stick. Because of their popularity, they have managed to make their way into water systems and living organisms through leaching and contamination. In addition to cookware, you can find PFASs in a variety of food packaging, household products, clothing items, fire-fighting foams, industrial waste, and drinking water. They also accumulate in the tissue of living organisms, including humans.

The prevalence of PFASs in the environment is a concern because they have been proven to harm both the environment and human health. PFASs are stable molecules, which make them resistant to most treatment methods. This resistance to breakdown means they stay in any living organisms that they come in contact with and can accumulate in the body over time. Additional research has shown that these chemicals can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects, which include immune system deficiencies, low infant birth weights, cancer, thyroid hormone distribution, developmental and liver problems, and potentially many more. Water contamination specifically is becoming a large concern. Drinking water in two Detroit suburbs has tested positive for PFAS contamination. PFASs also have been detected in several other of Michigan’s drinking water sources such as waterways and lakes. It is clear that PFAS are increasingly becoming more of a problem for our health and the environment.

Thanks to the PFOA Stewardship program, most PFASs production has been phased out in the United States. However, people can still come in contact with them through imported goods because they are not yet banned internationally. In addition, companies in the U.S. are still producing next generation PFASs, called GenX. These compounds are found in firefighting foams and food packaging. Because of that, further research on these chemicals is being done all over the country and world.

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) has teamed up with researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the University of California at Riverside to combat this issue and work toward a solution. Researchers from each university are currently investigating the effects of cobalt (Co)-catalyzed defluorination to degrade PFASs. ISTC is working to connect the PFAS research community and increase public awareness through seminars and conferences surrounding research findings.

The first conference will take place in the beginning of June. ISTC will be collaborating with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to hold the 2018 Emerging Contaminants in the Aquatic Environment Conference. Be sure to mark your calendars and register online if you’re interested. One speaker to specifically look forward to is Rainer Lohmann, a professor of Oceanography from the University of Rhode Island, who will be doing a keynote presentation on PFASs. With this conference and series of seminars, ISTC hopes to help eliminate the use of PFASs and help to find more sustainable replacements.

 

 

Plastic Is Forever – or Is It?

WRITTEN BY: Katherine Gardiner, ISTC staff

lots of bottles all lined up outside to show how wastefull single use bottles are

Plastic waste is one of the leading environmental concerns in the world today.

Many times, consumers use a plastic product just once before throwing it away. We might only see it for a short time – a plastic shopping bag, for example – but that plastic bag can sit in a landfill for decades before it is broken down completely.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, areas of floating plastic pieces and microplastics (<5mm) in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, is estimated to be three times the size of France. Dianna Parker of the NOAA Marine Debris Program insists that cleaning up the garbage patch isn’t enough. She explains,  “until we prevent debris from entering the ocean at the source, it’s just going to keep congregating in these areas.”

What if there was a way to stop plastic from filling up our landfills and polluting our waterways?

ISTC researchers B.K. Sharma and Kishore Rajagopalan worked with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to convert plastic bags into fuel.

Two jars: one contains a plastic shopping bag, the other contains oil made from the plastic shopping bagThe team collected high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bags from local shops and used a pyrolysis unit to turn them into plastic crude oil (PCO). After distilling the PCO, analyzing the resulting fuels, and adding antioxidants, the products met nearly all specifications of the conventional diesel standards.

In fact, the researchers’ HDPE-derived fuels beat out conventional petroleum diesel when it came to the fuel’s lubricity and derived cetane number, which is an indicator of the combustion speed. The team concluded that their plastic-based fuel could be blended safely and efficiently with petroleum diesel fuel, reducing the amount of plastic ending up in landfills or out into the environment while also creating something valuable from the waste plastic.

More recently, ISTC researchers B.K. Sharma and Sriraam Chandrasekaran developed the first energy-efficient and environmentally friendly process to separate mixed polymers in waste plastics, allowing the waste plastic to be recycled into new, high-quality plastic products.

Single polymer plastics, such as water bottles, are easy to recycle because they are made with a uniform plastic. Sharma explained that products that are made of more complex polymer blends, such as cellphone cases, “pile up at recycling centers and eventually end up being incinerated or sent to landfills” due to the lack of safe and efficient ways to recycle them.

Currently, the most efficient method for this process involves a chemical called DCM that releases carcinogenic vapors in conditions close to room temperature. The method created by Sharma and Chandrasekaran uses a solvent called NMP, which Chandrasekaran assured, “will only release vapors when heated to 180 degrees Celsius, far above the temperature needed to dissolve the polymers.”

ISTC isn’t the only organization committed to reducing plastic waste.

thousands of bottle caps inside a rubber tire. someone's dirty hands are sorting the capsSanjeev Das, Global Packaging Director at Unilever, announced that through a partnership with Ioniqa, a start-up company in the Netherlands, they have found a way to recycle any kind of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) plastic. By using this new technology, they are able to break down the PET plastic to the molecular level, remove any colors or impurities, and turn it back into clear food-grade PET plastic.

While not available yet, Das estimates the technology could be ready for widespread use by the third quarter of 2019. He believes this technology can revolutionize the plastic recycling industry. By bringing value to PET waste, people and communities all over the world will be motivated to collect plastic, creating a circular economy.

In a commitment to sustainability, Nestle pledged to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. Nestle CEO Mark Schneider stated, “plastic waste is one of the biggest sustainability issues the world is facing today. Tackling it requires a collective approach.”

There are smaller steps companies can take to reduce plastic waste and encourage sustainable habits. Coffee giant Starbucks offers a discount to customers who bring in reusable mugs and has been doing so since 1985. Urbana-Champaign coffee chain Espresso Royale offers a similar discount. Retailers such as Target, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s offer discounts for bringing in your own reusable shopping bags.

While the best option for eliminating plastic waste is to reduce our reliance on single use products, plastic use is so heavily engrained in our culture that we might never phase it out completely. These scientific advances in plastic recycling pave the way for a future where there is minimal, if any, plastic waste.