New Worlds: TAU research spin washes polluted soil

Scientists find way to literally wash soil from carcinogens like lead and cadmium.

science 88 (photo credit: )
science 88
(photo credit: )
Waste products from the electronics, fuel, chemical and defense industries usually include toxic metals like cadmium and lead, which can seep into the food chain and cause cancer. If identified in the soil, these substances can make parks off-limits and real estate worthless. Thus for environmental, health and financial reasons, new solutions are needed to help clean the soil. Now, an innovative Tel Aviv University soil-cleaning technique, which uses a cement truck as a giant "washing machine" may change things. Professors Amos Ullmann and Neima Brauner of TAU's engineering faculty and Prof. Eliora Ron of the life sciences faculty, in cooperation with researcher Dr. Zvi Ludmer, are working on a new cleaning agent that binds to and removes toxic materials, leaving beneficial minerals intact. "My colleagues have developed a system that literally washes soil," says Dr. Michael Gozin of TAU's School of Chemistry. The top-secret formulation, now in the early stages of research and development, will make it possible for truckloads of contaminated earth to be cleaned in a cement mixer. The compound is also biodegradable and environmentally safe. "Heavy metals can't be removed with just soap and water, notes Gozin. Chemically speaking, a cleaning agent of this nature is difficult to develop." With the new technique, once a commercial partner is found, the product could be ready in as little as three years and can also be customized to remove specific chemicals that can then be transferred to suitable facilities. Soil, says Gozin, is a very complex material. "When we're designing chemicals of the future, we have to keep in mind the delicate balance in our environment. Microorganisms, for example, are important. We don't want to kill them or remove the beneficial minerals and metals. Our advanced solution keeps all these factors in mind," he says. The team's special compound relies on advanced chemical architecture, creating molecular compounds with complex and highly specific functions that recognize and bind to certain metals such as cadmium. The resulting compounds are nontoxic and biodegradable. Current solutions for cleaning soil are time consuming, expensive and not fully effective. They strip the soil of all its basic compounds, leaving behind useless sand and their own toxic byproducts. "These solutions solve one problem but create others," notes Gozin, who also works for the US Air Force. The TAU solution will renew polluted soil and may affect business as well: Properties close to industrial parks are especially at risk, and the value of that real estate remains low. In principle, the solution could also be applied in the mining industry and to enable mineralogists to extract desired materials such as gold or the rare metals used in hi-tech. SPURTING WITH INGENUITY Students at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology who managed to propel a missile using pressurized drinking water recently won a NIS 10,000 first prize in the annual TechnoRosh competition on the Haifa campus. The prizes were awarded according to the weight of the propelled object, the amount of time it remained in the air and "elegance and creativity." Roman Rosenstein and Haim Malik, both third-year mechanical engineering students, won first prize in the competition, which was established by Niv-Ya Dorban, an outstanding Technion graduate who was murdered on a Tel Aviv street six years ago. The two students started to work on their project a few weeks ago. After they abandoned the "Sputnik" project they had started because the opening of the parachute was problematic, they thought of a heavier missile. It flew for less than two seconds - a much shorter time than their competitors' missiles, which were named "Bakbuktus," "Victoria" and "Superman" - but because it was so heavy, they took first prize. The two engineering students said they had done much research to find the optimal weight of the missile and how much water was needed to propel it into the air. Rosenstein said he will spend his half of the money on a weekend at a guest house with his girlfriend, while Malik will invest it in his studies and to help his father, who came on aliya just a few weeks ago. SAVING EVERY DROP Sometimes it seems as if anything valuable that is not nailed down is stolen, whether they are gas balloons, metal objects in the streets that are melted down and even trees. Now, Moti Kosovsky, director of Car On Line from the Ituran Group, has developed a unique sensor that detects the stealing of gasoline from trucks. About four percent of the fuel in truck tanks is stolen, he estimates. A engineering team of Ituran headed by Hanoch Greenberg developed such a sensor, and a total of NIS 400,000 was invested. The installation of the sensor does not harm the gas tank. Rather, the sensor is installed in the truck cabin and attached both to the GPS or Ituran positioning system and to containers in the vehicle. The sensor knows how to identify a sudden drastic reduction in fuel while the truck is stationary. The alert is sent by the positioning system to the Ituran company. The one-time price for the device is NIS 450, and customers with the sensors attached to their fleet pay nothing for the ongoing alerts. An average truck guzzles a liter of diesel fuel every two or three kilometers and covers an average of 6,000 kilometers - or 3,000 liters - a month. The fuel thus costs NIS 15,000 monthly for one truck. Kosovsky noted that some of the thefts are carried out by the driver himself to earn "income on the side. They think nobody will notice the loss of 20 or 30 liters from a 500-liter tank. The sensor, he concludes, could put an end to it.