Nano Science: Something “goofy” happens

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‘ya hang around some of the less savory places I do on occasion and you’re bound to bump into this sweet-smelling bad actor named, Trichloroethylene, or TCE. You might recall that this bad actor had a lead in the book and movie “A Civil Action”, about contaminated wells in Woburn, MA. Well, if you do bump into this character in a dark  alley, grab your kidneys and liver and get outa town. Or maybe not…

TCE lingers like a bad houseguest, especially if handled carelessly. It accumulates in soil and can persist for years in groundwater. In a report last year, the National Research Council found that TCE was a potential cause of kidney cancer; it’s also associated with liver problems, autoimmune disease and impaired neurological function.

Enter King Midas–usually known as Michael Wong–with his miracle gold nanoparticles dusted with palladium.  According to The Smithsonian Magazine in a piece by William Booth of the Washington Post, Mr. Wong has discovered somewhat of a cure that even he doesn’t fully understand.

And just what is it? “We don’t know!” says Wong. “We don’t understand the chemistry. But we don’t understand it in a good way,” meaning he believes that his team will figure it out soon. “Our catalyst is doing something really goofy.”

No expensive endless inefficient pump and treat? That’s just positively goofy.

Goofy it may be, but Wong’s nanodetergent breaks TCE down into relatively harmless ethane and chloride salts. He and his team are now working with engineers to build a real-sized reactor to field-test the nanoparticles at a polluted site. They hope to be scrubbing TCE in about a year, and then they’ll see whether they have the cost-efficient cleaner they seek.

Just to get an idea of the pervasive nature of this chemical, consider these facts:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 1,428 hazardous waste sites as the most serious in the nation, and these sites make up the National Priorities List (NPL, or Superfund) targeted for long-term federal clean-up. Trichloroethylene has been found in at least 861, or 60%, of the NPL sites, and there are tens of thousands of other cleanup sites across the country. The full extent of TCE contamination nationwide is unclear. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reports that trichloroethylene is the most frequently reported organic contaminant in groundwater, and estimates that between 9 and 34 percent of drinking water supply sources have some trichloroethylene contamination.

Well, I’m not in any position to evaluate some goofy nanodiscovery by a post-doctorate chemist but if he’s got himself a gold-plated magic bullet to clean up the mess we’ve made of our diminishing fresh water supply here on earth, let it rain down!

Feel better, Buhdy, from T&P!


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    • lori on October 28, 2007 at 04:36

    might have been onto something: “Nano, nano” (right?) Because of the lack of effective ways to deal with TCE, the solution is usually just to seek other sources of drinking water. Is this too good to be true?

    • Tigana on October 28, 2007 at 06:17

    Thank you.

  1. is some evil stuff. I worked with it extensively in the late 70’s, early 80’s and something ‘goofy’ happened alright … to my liver. Near constant discomfort in that part of my belly, wacked out enzymes in blood tests, scary, folks. You’re probably right about the aircraft nocatz, this stuff is an amazing degreaser, but TCE like asbestos,coal and so many of our other great technological breakthroughs,there is often a big price to pay down the road.
    Makes me wonder what kind of surprises nano tech has instore. It does seem we spend an awful lot of brain power and money undoing our ‘progress’ from bygone science. 

    • Twank on October 28, 2007 at 13:24

    I’m a garden variety biochemist/organic chemist.  I realize that the term “nano’ is very chic today … sci-fi LOVES to show little nano machines doing all sorts of weird/wild/wacky things.  Hey, very entertaining.

    But in this case, “nano” is just telling you that the particle size of the catalyst is really, really small.  So?

    Too much nano in this article, my opinion.

    But nice to see stuff for us chemistry wonks.

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