News Release 

Science snapshots From Berkeley Lab

Water purification, infant-warming device, cuff-based heart disease monitor, ancient magnetic fields

DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Research News

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IMAGE: UC Berkeley chemists synthesized flexible polymer membranes, like those currently used in membrane separation processes, but embedded with nanoparticles that can be tuned to absorb specific metal ions - gold... view more 

Credit: Adam Uliana/UC Berkeley

Improved Desalination Process Also Removes Toxic Metals to Produce Clean Water
-Adapted from UC Berkeley news release by Bob Sanders

Desalination - the removal of salt - is only one step in the process of producing drinkable water, or water for agriculture or industry, from ocean water or wastewater. Either before or after the removal of salt, the water often has to be treated to remove boron, which is toxic to plants, and heavy metals like arsenic and mercury, which are toxic to humans. Often, the process leaves behind a toxic brine that can be difficult to dispose of.

Now, a UC Berkeley-led research team in collaboration with Berkeley Lab has discovered a way to simplify the removal of toxic metals, like mercury and boron, during desalination to produce clean water, while at the same time potentially capturing valuable metals, such as gold. The study was recently published in the journal Science.

The new technique, which can easily be added to current membrane-based electrodialysis desalination processes, removes nearly 100% of these toxic metals, producing a pure brine along with pure water and isolating the valuable metals for later use or disposal.

Lead author Adam Uliana, a UC Berkeley graduate student, and senior author Jeffrey Long- a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division and UC Berkeley chemistry professor, collaborated closely with Ngoc Bui, then a postdoctoral researcher in Berkeley Lab's Molecular Foundry and now an Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma, and Jeff Urban, director of the Molecular Foundry's Inorganic Nanostructures facility, to develop and implement the project.

"Virtually every element in the periodic table can be found in water, and being able to perform precise separations of critical elements is essential for achieving meaningful resource recovery," said Urban, who along with Bui pioneered a water-remediation technology called ZIOS that captures copper from wastewater with unprecedented atomic precision. "Performing remediation in concert with recovery would represent a huge step forward for water and energy technologies."

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science and Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program.

Read the full UC Berkeley release here.

Infant-Warming Device Proven Effective and Safe in Reducing Neonatal Mortality
-By Kiran Julin

Newborn babies, particularly those born under-weight or preterm, are susceptible to hypothermia, since newborns are not yet able to maintain their own body heat. Hypothermia is recognized to be a significant contributor to newborn disease and death, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

The World Health Organization and public health leaders have recommended best practices to prevent hypothermia in newborns. These include skin-to-skin contact with the mother, and if available, a supplemental external heat source. A new infant-warming device developed at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley offers a promising solution that does not require electricity, and is low-cost, convenient, and reusable.

A recent study in The Lancet found that the infant-warming device, known as the Dream Warmer, proved to be safe and effective at significantly lowering newborn mortality rates associated with hypothermia in Rwanda. The findings from a field trial led by Harvard Medical School showed that use of the infant warmer resulted in a drop in infant mortality from 2.8% to 0.9% in hospitals in Rwanda.

The Dream Warmer is a wrap-around pad containing a phase-change material, which is a substance that can absorb and release large amounts of thermal energy or heat when it melts or freezes. The Dream Warmer maintains a temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the average 020202boiling water and allowed to cool prior to use with newborn infants.

The technology was developed by Berkeley Lab scientists Ashok Gadgil and Vi Rapp, and builds upon an earlier design by Mike Elam, Jonathan Slack, and others at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley.

Gadgil and Rapp expected to see some effect on infant mortality but were thrilled to see the threefold drop. "That was a huge and quite unexpected result," said Gadgil.

"These results demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of the warmer, which will support its progression to an article of routine widespread use, first in Rwanda and then elsewhere," added Rapp.

The Harvard Medical School trial in Rwanda was conducted in collaboration with researchers at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley, and physicians at Partners in Health, Boston Children's Hospital, and the Rwanda Ministry of Health. The field research in Rwanda was funded by the Banyan Gates Foundation.

New Cuff-Based Technology Monitors Endothelial Function to Aid Prevention, Treatment of Heart Disease
-By Ruby Barcklay

Blood pressure monitors are a common at-home tool for monitoring heart health, but they don't look at the health of the endothelium, the lining of the blood vessels. And endothelial function is a powerful predictor of heart attack and stroke. It has also been linked to COVID-19 in a number of studies.

The trouble is, the current state-of-the-art method to monitor endothelial health, flow-mediated dilation (FMD), which measures the change in diameter in the brachial artery before and after shutting off blood flow, requires the use of an ultrasound scanner or expensive systems. The cost of these systems, and the technical skills needed to perform the measurement preclude frequent testing or continuous monitoring. And some FMD systems that are based on microvascular tone aren't always accurate, as they are sensitive to "sympathetic nervous activation," which can confound the results.

Berkeley Lab has developed a technology using cuffs, like those used for taking blood pressure, to monitor both endothelial function and endothelium-independent vasodilation. Studies on human subjects have verified that the cuff-based method is 37% more sensitive to arterial relaxation than brachial artery imaging. In addition, the apparatus costs one-fifteenth as much as an ultrasonic imager and eliminates the need for an ultrasound technician.

The lower cost and non-invasive method allows for routine detection and monitoring of endothelial health. That means earlier identification of cardiovascular disease and closer management of endothelial health.

"The cuffs are similar to the blood pressure devices many people already use," said bioscientist Jonathan Maltz, who developed the technology with fellow bioscientist Thomas Budinger. "With this technology, people can regularly monitor their endothelial health, in addition to their blood pressure, either at the doctor's office or in the comfort of their own homes."

Maltz also invented a way to calibrate the cuff-based measurements with those of ultrasound-based flow-mediated dilation. The calibrations allow health providers to monitor the effects of interventions such as exercise, smoking cessation, dietary modification, and cholesterol-lowering therapy, on patient health.

The Berkeley Lab technology is now available for licensing.

Meteorites Reveal Magnetic Record of Protoplanet Churn
-By Lori Tamura

If you stumble upon an unusual rock that could be a meteorite, do not place a magnet on it to see if it's magnetic - you'd end up erasing 4.5 billion years of magnetic history. Meteorites are remnants of our solar system's first protoplanets and, in some cases, retain a record of the magnetic fields they've experienced in the distant past.

"As planetary scientists, we're interested in understanding how protoplanets formed and evolved prior to the formation of the planets we know today," said Clara Maurel, a Ph.D. student at MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. "There are many different areas of research that tackle these questions, and our angle of approach is to use magnetism."

In a recent paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Maurel and colleagues from MIT, Oxford, Arizona State, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Berkeley Lab detected the signatures of ancient magnetic fields imprinted in a meteorite's ferromagnetic grains at Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source (ALS).

The results revealed a bias in the magnetization directions found in different regions of the sample, indicating that the meteorite was exposed to a substantial, stable magnetic field that magnetized its ferromagnetic grains upon cooling. The team interpreted this as evidence for a dynamo-generated magnetic field powered by the parent body's churning, molten-metal core. A similar mechanism powers the Earth's magnetic field today.

Combined with earlier measurements of two other meteorites from the same parent and radioisotopic dating of the samples, the results support an extended time frame for the cooling of molten protoplanetary cores. Despite its small size compared to planets, this protoplanet did not cool quickly, but instead sustained a molten metallic core for tens of millions of years after the birth of the solar system.

"For people who are interested in modeling the evolution of protoplanets, experimental constraints like this are essential," said Maurel. "These data points represent an important first step toward a better understanding of the chronological activity of protoplanets, from their formation to the time they completely solidify and become inactive."

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