Plant and Soil Sciences
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University of Delaware Environmental Soil Chemistry Members In The News



The strength of partnerships

Land-grant universities, Cooperative Extension, and Agricultural Experiment Stations are researching problems critical to the survival and competitiveness of agriculture. Working as partners with state and federal governments and the private sector, they are addressing society's most pressing needs.

The success of partners working together in research for common quality-of-life concerns is confirmed day after day. Universities, government, industries, and small businesses form working partnerships in science and technology that are the strength of today, the promise of tomorrow.

A down-to-earth way to help the environment

holders The phrase up close and personal takes on special meaning for the College's soil scientists. Using advanced X-ray technology, university and industrial research partners are getting a close view of what heavy metals, such as lead, look like in soil, how they bind to soil particles, and what their nearest chemical neighbors are. Identifying the molecular structure of these metals will help determine any risks a soil presents, which in turn will lead the way to the most cost-effective method of keeping pollutants in soil from harming the environment.

Who benefits? We all do. People, animals, the environment and the American economy. Reclaiming these sites costs industry and government a bundle each year.

Partnerships in Soil Chemistry Produce Positive Charge for Research

Scientists interacting with other scientists, state-of-the-art equipment, research breakthroughs ... all these are possible with research partnerships.

"The collaboration in our department is extensive, from visiting professors from universities abroad, to student internships with local and national companies, to sharing highly technical equipment and expertise at a national research laboratory," says Dr. Donald Sparks, chair and distinguished professor in the department of plant and soil sciences. "Our researchers are regularly involved in ongoing projects with industry professionals that benefit the basic and applied goals of both university and commercial research interests. We have a large group of capable people working closely with researchers in industry."

Sparks says the department looks for opportunities that allow graduate and undergraduate students to apply environmental chemistry from a soil science perspective.

"Many of our projects involve the mobility of organic chemicals and metals in the soil," he says. "The students get good laboratory experience, and get to work on projects and with equipment that gives them a feel for practical problems. In fact, our opportunities for applied research are so attractive to undergraduates that we've even had a few students from other departments contact us to work in our laboratories just for the experience."

Sparks' research team, which has focused efforts on determining how time affects the retention and behavior of heavy metal and organic contaminants in soil, meets every two weeks for progress reports. Sparks sees the interaction of research associates, postdoctoral fellows, undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty as essential to professional development and building positive dynamics in the research teams.

The group is allotted "beam-time" at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, which gives them access to a synchrotron light source and X-ray absorption spectroscopy. This technology, available at only four other sites in the United States, enables the research team to examine precisely the fate of heavy metal contaminants in soils. Eventually this knowledge may be used to clean up or contain industrial waste sites. The team is currently evaluating metals in soils from several locations in the United States.

The Dupont Company has been an essential research partner in the process. Dr. William Berti, a Dupont soil scientist at the company's Glasgow, Del., site, has been working with Sparks' group on X-ray spectroscopy. Berti says the cooperative research has centered around analysis of the data generated at Brookhaven.

"We have a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with Brookhaven whereby our funds support a scientist at Brookhaven, Dr. Gerry Lamble. Her expertise in data analysis has been useful to UD graduate students involved in the project," Berti says. "We have also shared data bases on crystalline structures in compounds that have helped with analysis."

Berti says that he is seeing more cooperative research partnerships especially in environmental work.

"In a sense I look at UD personnel as another resource," he says. "With interrelated projects, we may have an interest that is different from the university's. But ultimately we're developing the technology to move the science ahead so we can all apply it. For example, if soils have a level of contamination, we want to be able to determine if that level poses a risk to human health or the environment."

Berti calls X-ray absorption spectroscopy "a hot area of research. It tells us what the lead looks like in the soil. It's difficult to examine the lead in the soil and X-ray spectroscopy is one of the few direct ways of doing it. By exposing lead to the X-rays, we can get information about solubility and leachability into water or bioavailability to plants, earthworms or animals that may be higher up on the food chain. Knowing the molecular structure of a lead phosphate or a lead sulfate lets us know the risk that the soil may present to human health. It also gives us information on how to remediate any risk."

Sparks says data generated through UD research is highly credible and valued by government agencies.

"Both Dupont and UD benefit from the collaboration," Sparks says. "Our research results have been generated by cutting-edge technology and have been published in peer-reviewed journals. So when issues of industrial contamination and cleanup are discussed, our data is considered reliable, high-quality and endorsed by other scientists."

Sparks stresses that the collaboration with Dupont goes beyond specific research projects.

"Dupont has supported undergraduate internships, a graduate fellowship within the department and has also sponsored a series of distinguished lecturers," he says. "I look

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