Contaminated aquifer could be cleaned with corn starch sugar

Thomas Boving
Thomas Boving

A new technology for cleaning up hazardous waste using a sugar made from corn starch has won a $830,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Thomas Boving, an assistant professor of geosciences at the University of Rhode Island, with colleagues from the University of Arizona, the Colorado College of Mines, and the University of Texas-San Antonio, has developed the innovative system to quickly and economically remove a wide range of toxic materials from groundwater using a substance called cyclodextrin.

"Cyclodextrin is a type of sugar made from corn starch," said Boving, a native of Germany who joined the URI faculty in 1999. "It's better than other technologies for cleaning up hazardous materials because it's nontoxic and leaving it underground for a period of time causes no harm."

Cyclodextrins, which are known chemically as cyclicoligosaccharides, were discovered 100 years ago. They have been used in the pharmaceutical industry to make drugs more water soluble and to increase their bio-availablity and stability. Cyclodextrins can also be used as processing aids to isolate compounds from natural sources and to remove unwanted compounds such as cholesterol from food products. But Boving's application of cyclodextrin to hazardous waste is a first.

Due to the chemical structure of cyclodextrin, many toxic materials like solvents, pesticides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are attracted to it.

To clean up a site, Boving will inject quantities of cyclodextrin solution into contaminated soil and groundwater. After allowing the material to move through the earth and attract the contaminants, Boving will pump the cyclodextrin out of the ground.

A military installation in Virginia was selected as the field demonstration site for Boving's technology. Beginning in May, his team will conduct preliminary testing of the soils and groundwater at the test site and prepare the field study. The actual field test will take place over four months during the summer of 2002.

The most innovative part of the cleanup process is how costly cyclodextrin is recycled. Boving and his colleagues from the URI Chemical Engineering Department have developed a method of stripping the contaminants from the cyclodextrin so the expensive substance can be used again.

Boving has focused his research on removing contaminants from water. Last year, he developed a system of separating pollutants from storm water runoff before it reaches Narragansett Bay by using shredded aspen wood. The wood sucessfully removed pyrene, a human carcinogen, from roadway runoff.

Boving says that this grant from the Department of Defense's Environmental Security Technology Certification program will allow him to prove the benefits and advantages of his technology for cleaning up aquifers. These geologic formations that hold water underground have been contaminated by military or industrial chemicals in many places.

"No one who has to clean up a site is going to use an unproven system," Boving said, "so this grant will allow us to demonstrate that our system is quicker and more economical than the most commonly used methods today."

The Department of Defense controls about 28,000 sites that must be cleaned up, and at least 500 of those contain the contaminants on which Boving's cyclodextrin system is expected to perform best. In addition, there are thousands of other sites around the country that need cleaning. The government estimates it will cost about $1 trillion to clean up all of them.

"There is a tremendous amount of work to do to clean up the thousands of toxic sites in the country," Boving said. "Obtaining the military's seal of approval for our system is a big step in the right direction for us."

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