On November 4th, 2015 we learned about

Remediation project turns pollution in to pigment for paints

Pollution is a problem that needs multiple solutions. Once you’ve identified the pollutant, you need a way to clean it up. If all goes well, the local environment might be cleared, but you’re likely left with the polluting substance still, which needs to be broken down or stored somewhere, which may prove more difficult than the initial extraction. The biggie in all this is that all this work and materials can get expensive, and so a cleaned stream needs some source of funding to make all of the above happen. This doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless process though, as some people have even found a way to solve all of the above while making something new and beautiful at the same time.

The people in question are Guy Riefler and John Sabraw, both professors in Ohio. Riefler was looking for a way to clean up streams carrying toxic runoff from abandoned coal mines in the area. Improperly sealed mines can fill up with water that then leaches iron and sulfur from the rock. If the water stayed put, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but once it starts draining into the surrounding aquifer it can poison animals as well as turn the streams reddish brown with pollution. That last detail was actually the opportunity that Riefler siezed on when he set out to clean up some of this polluted water, because the same iron and sulfur compounds that were coloring the water could be removed and reused to color things we want to have reds and browns, like paintings.

Reuse after remediation

After putting the polluted water through a series of procedures, the iron and sulfur was extracted and the water’s pH restored. The various polluting compounds were then put to new use, as Riefler realized that many were the same compounds found in pigments for various paints and dyes. Just having the color isn’t enough though, as paints contain other ingredients to help them spread, mix and dry evenly when they’re used on a canvas. So Riefler turned to Sabraw, an art professor with experience mixing paints. Together they worked on the formulation and ended up with paint as usable as commercial products, plus a little bonus. Because the pigment carried some impurities of its own, the smell of the paint was reminiscent of the caves, earth and streams they were recovered from, adding a subtle twist to final product.

Scaling up

While Sabraw has been using these reclaimed pigments in his paintings, Riefler is looking to scale the project up. Now that some of these steps have been figured out, he’d like to do them on a much larger scale, capturing much larger amounts of pollutants. In addition to paints, he’s looking into using the pigment to make dyes and other coloring agents that could be sold in large quantities. This would not only move more pollutants to a more beneficial use, but also help pay for the remediation process overall.

Source: The Fine Art of Toxic Waste by Jennifer Balmer, Science Friday

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