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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2004 / 03 

Virginia tech researcher aims to use nano-particles in environmental cleanups

March 18, 2004

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $400,000 grant to Peter Vikesland of Blacksburg, Va., an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, to study the use of nano-particles in removing hazardous solvents from groundwater.

The five-year Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award will enable Vikesland to make advances in research he began as a post-doctoral scholar at Johns Hopkins University before he joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2002.

Many chlorinated solvents, such as the dry cleaning fluid perchloroethylene, have become major groundwater contaminants as a result of their improper disposal, Vikesland said. Although disposal practices have improved greatly, these hazardous chemicals can persist for some time in groundwater and continue to pose a cleanup challenge.

About 10 years ago, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, discovered that iron filings corrode when exposed to chlorinated solvents, a chemical reaction that renders the solvents non-hazardous. As the filings corrode in groundwater, Vikesland explained, they break down to form the iron oxide magnetite, which takes the form of particles less than 100 nanometers in diameter. These nano-particles have the potential to continue to react with the chlorinated solvents, thus ensuring longer-term remediation.

Vikesland's CAREER project has two goals — to understand the chemistry of iron corrosion and reactivity, and to assess the effects of the formation of nano-particles on long-term reactivity. "A knowledge of the fundamental chemistry of this reactivity could result in improvements for several types of environmental cleanups," Vikesland said.

His research also will add to the body of knowledge concerning magnetite nano-particles. In addition to its potential importance in environmental cleanups, magnetite is used in certain other advanced technologies, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

All CAREER projects have an educational component, and Vikesland plans to revamp an important undergraduate course, Introduction to Environmental Engineering. He will add new concepts, such as sustainability and green engineering, and will teach the course using problem-based learning.

Vikesland earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Grinnell College in 1993 and his master's (1995) and doctorate (1998) in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Iowa. He received the American Water Works Association Dissertation Award in 2000 for his research in the field of drinking water treatment.

In 2003, Vikesland was one of a select group of the nation's top young engineering faculty invited by the National Academy of Engineering to participate in the Frontiers of Engineering Symposium in Irvine, Calif.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college’s 5,600 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.