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NMSU interdisciplinary grant brings chemistry and geology departments together

Too much arsenic, an odorless, tasteless material in drinking water, over a long period of time could potentially lead to cancer of the bladder, lungs or skin or a number of other diseases.

A New Mexico State University student-faculty research team uses spectroscopy to test the amount of arsenic in a water sample. Pictured left to right are junior chemistry major Michael Eberhart, geology department head Nancy McMillan, chemistry professor Michael Johnson and senior geology major Jason Kegel. (NMSU Photo by Darren Phillips)

Arsenic testA team of researchers at New Mexico State University's College of Arts and Sciences is trying to determine the most cost-effective way to reduce arsenic concentrations in water supplies.

The semi-metal element generally occurs naturally in water supplies but can also be introduced as a byproduct of some agricultural and industrial activities via runoff water into aquifers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. Aquifers are bodies of rock that can hold and transmit groundwater deep below the earth's surface, and McMillan said there are EPA-approved amounts of arsenic in New Mexico's drinking water. This study will determine how to reduce arsenic levels in the most cost-effective way possible.

Two undergraduates in different disciplines, Michael Eberhart, a junior chemistry major, and Jason Kegel, a senior geology major, are working alongside professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Michael Johnson, and professor of geology and department head, Nancy McMillan. Such cross-discipline interactions are able to tackle research problems that are beyond the scope of an individual scientist's abilities. The students in this project admit that working across disciplines has helped them in thinking of innovative ways to approach scientific problems from more than one mindset.

"I liked working together," Kegel said. "I learned the basics in my chemistry classes but never really went in depth. It's neat to be able to apply what I learned to this particular study involving removing arsenic from ground water."

During the course of a one-year study that started in summer 2008, the team found that removing arsenic from drinking water is best done naturally with a mineral called goethite (hydrous iron oxide) found in its natural state in nature or with an analogous substance synthesized in the laboratory. The remaining time in this project will be used to determine whether the synthetic or naturally occurring materials are most cost-effective for arsenic remediation. Synthetic samples add expense to these types of studies because the materials used to make goethite are mined and purified before use in the lab, Kegel said.

Using a tool called an atomic absorption spectrometer, the researchers can determine the parts per billion of a metal in a particular sample - in this case, arsenic - in a 50-milliliter water sample. Other techniques being used in this study include X-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscopy as well as particle analysis through Los Alamos National Laboratories.

The collaboration across disciplines is allowing Kegel and Eberhart to see a project from each other's point of view and investigate findings in a way they might not normally. "They have to take what they learned in the classroom and apply it to a real life situation only to find out it's not as simple as they thought it was," Johnson said.

It is hoped that collaborations such as this will contribute to the creation of a geochemistry minor for undergraduates, which is something not currently offered by NMSU.