TROY professor working to clean up mercury contaminated waterways

September 6, 2016

A Troy University professor is conducting research that may help fight mercury contamination at water bodies throughout the country.

Dr. Carrie Miller, an environmental science professor at the Troy Campus, is researching the effects of sorbents (materials used to bind contaminants) on mercury contaminated soil gathered from a contaminated creek in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where the U.S. Department of Energy developed bombs for decades.

Before coming to TROY, Miller worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a Department of Energy research facility, where she spent six years doing research about mercury contamination in the surrounding area.

The site was the location where the atomic bomb was developed in the 1940s, and later bomb development led to the mercury contamination.

Alpha Track Calutron at the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee from the Manhattan Project, used for uranium enrichment by electromagnetic separation process. See http://www.cfo.doe.gov/me70/manhattan/alpha_racetrack.htm for additional information. By Ed Westcott (James Edward Westcott), in official capacity as photographer employed by the US government. - http://www.dpi.anl.gov/dpi2/ph_gallery/pic11s.htmAlso obtainable from U.S. Department of Energy; http://www.cfo.doe.gov/me70/manhattan/images/Y12AlphaVeryLarge.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1362241

Alpha Track Calutron at the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee from the Manhattan Project, used for uranium enrichment by electromagnetic separation process. (Public Domain)

“They had huge amounts of mercury on site in Oak Ridge at this facility and some of it leaked out in the environment,” Miller said. “There is a lot of mercury contamination now still at that facility. It’s leaking mercury into a creek and the soils surrounding the creek. It can accumulate in fish, and when people eat the fish, they can be exposed to mercury.”

Miller’s current research project is in collaboration with Alabama State University and funded by a Department of Energy grant.

“The research I started in Oak Ridge and am continuing here is looking at how we can potentially remediate the system and what kind of technologies we can use,” she said. “We’re looking at different sorbent materials we can add to the soil that might bind the mercury so it doesn’t leak out into the water. Some of these sorbents are things like activated carbon, charcoal-type compounds that will keep mercury bound to the soils and not let it get into the water.”

Dr. Carrie Miller

Dr. Carrie Miller

Meanwhile, researchers at ASU are looking at the effects different bacteria have on the mercury contaminated soil. The hope is that this research will lead to better ways to curb mercury contamination not just in Oak Ridge but across the country.

“Some of these technologies have been used at other sites,” Miller said. “Every site is going to be different. At every site the soil is slightly different, the bacteria are slightly different. What we’re doing now can be applied to other sites, but we still need to test at other sites.”

If a good sorbent can be found, the next step would be to test it in different environmental conditions.

Researchers are in for the long haul, as a solution isn’t likely to be found soon.

“It’s definitely an ongoing project,” Miller said. “Oak Ridge has been researching the mercury for over 20 years and they still don’t have a solution.”

In addition to her own work, Miller is giving two undergraduate students a chance to help out as well. The students are assisting her in the lab.

“One of our goals is getting undergraduates exposed to this environmental research,” she said.