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Stanford environmental molecular science institute will study pollutants, one molecule at a time

Stanford University

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has established a new research institute at Stanford University dedicated to tackling environmental pollution problems at the molecular level. A major focus of the Stanford Environmental Molecular Science Institute will be on how heavy metal contamination in water, soils and sediments interacts with the surfaces of environmental solids and bacteria.

''We live in a world of interfaces among solids, liquids, gases, microbial organisms and plants, which are the locations of most chemical and biological interactions in the environment,'' said Gordon E. Brown Jr., the Dorrell William Kirby Professor of Geology and professor and chair of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL) faculty. ''Such interactions have a major impact on the fate of environmental contaminants.''

Brown is principal investigator of the institute, which will receive $7.5 million over the next five years-$6.7 million from NSF and $800,000 from the Department of Energy. The co-principal investigators from Stanford are Alfred M. Spormann, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Anders R. Nilsson, an associate professor at SSRL; Scott Fendorf, an associate professor of geological and environmental sciences; and Kelly Gaffney, an assistant professor at SSRL.

The Stanford team will collaborate with scientists and engineers at seven other institutions-Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Princeton University, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Paris VI and VII. Four corporations also are involved in the partnership: Corning, DuPont, Skeletal Kinetics and Zyomyx.

Institute members will use a variety of molecular-level tools-including synchrotron radiation-based spectroscopy and imaging methods at SSRL and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, as well as quantum chemical theory-to unravel the structure and properties of solid surfaces and water; determine how microbial biofilms adhere to solid surfaces and interact with heavy metals; and identify the molecular structure of arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury and other pollutants that are leading causes of water and soil contamination worldwide.

''The things we'll study range from the 'simplest,' such as the molecular structure of water and metal ions in solution, to the very complex, including field studies at polluted sites, such as the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Washington, and Bangladesh, where about 25 million people drink arsenic-contaminated water,'' Brown said. ''We'll take a very complex natural setting that contains heavy metal pollutants and take it apart, deconstruct it, to understand at a fundamental level what's happening to these pollutants.''

Identifying the structure of a chemical compound is crucial to determining its potential toxicity and the degree to which it can be absorbed in the body, he added.

''For example, methylmercury in tuna is highly toxic and readily absorbed in human tissue, but solid mercuric sulfide is highly insoluble and does not pose as much of an environmental hazard,'' Brown said. ''We'll also be training graduate and undergraduate students to work on these complex problems, and we'll have outreach to K-12 students as well.'' Bryan Brown, an assistant professor of education at Stanford, will be a partner in the outreach activities.

The Stanford institute is one of eight NSF Environmental Molecular Science Institutes in the United States, whose goal is to increase the fundamental understanding of environmental processes at the molecular level. The emphasis is on interdisciplinary, collaborative research among teams with complementary interests and on the creation of broad educational experiences for students.


By Mark Shwartz


Gordon E. Brown Jr., Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences: 650-723-9168,




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