Sugar solution makes for faster groundwater clean-up

A potentially faster and more efficient ‘pump and treat’ system for treating contaminated water, based on corn starch sugar, is to be tested at a US military site this summer.

Thomas Boving, an assistant professor of geosciences at the University of Rhode Island, leading a team of researchers from the University of Arizona, the Colorado School of Mines, and the University of Texas-San Antonio, told edie that the main aim of the study is to prove the viability of using cyclodextrin, a sugar produced from corn starch.

Fellow team member Dr Brusseau, at the University of Arizona, first identified the environmental potential of cyclodextrins – traditionally used as food additives and pharmaceutical products, in 1993. These non-toxic materials are particularly effective in absorbing a range of toxic chemicals including solvents, pesticides and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Boving, an environmental hydrologist, has now developed an application in groundwater clean-up based on these properties to significantly improve the efficiency of conventional pumping systems, with minimal risk. Cyclodextrins will be added to the flush water pumped down drainage wells in contaminated areas and are expected to be significantly more efficient in “collecting” contaminants from the groundwater, thus reducing the amount of flushing required.

A key element of recent developments is the ability to recycle the cyclodextrin within the system to minimise costs. Despite the ready availability of corn starch, cyclodextrins are currently only produced in relatively small quantities to meet existing demand in the pharmaceutical industry, and as such are relatively expensive compared with bulk chemical products.

However, if this new potential application can be proven – the test site is expected to require 13 tonnes of the sugar, the market is expected to be considerable. The US Department of Defence alone, which is funding the experiment with a grant of US$830,000, is reported to control about 28,000 sites, of which at least 500 would be particularly appropriate for the cyclodextrin system.

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