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Phytoremediation

IIHR Research Engineer Jerry Schnoor (center) and students (l to r) Richard Meggo, Sam Bircher, Guangshu Zhai, and Alexandra Beebe examine some hybrid poplar plants in the lab.

IIHR Research Engineer Jerry Schnoor (center) and students (l to r) Richard Meggo, Sam Bircher, Guangshu Zhai, and Alexandra Beebe examine some hybrid poplar plants in the lab.

Green technology is more than a catchphrase for Jerry Schnoor. He and his research team are using the greenest of technologies—poplar trees and other plants—to break down some of the most toxic substances in the environment.

“I think the reason it’s so promising is because it is truly a green technology that’s low cost and natural,” Schnoor says.

Schnoor is a research engineer associated with IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, as well as the Allen S. Henry Chair in Engineering in the UI College of Engineering. His work in phytoremediation—the use of plants to clean contaminated soils—is part of the Iowa Superfund Basic Research Program, which focuses on the sources, transport, and fate of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Prevailing Over PCBs

PCBs are known to be among the most toxic chemicals in existence, and they are difficult to clean up. “They’re very persistent—for decades,” Schnoor explains. That’s one reason why his work in phytoremediation is so groundbreaking. “We were the first ones to discover that plants can actually degrade PCBs,” Schnoor says.

Dredging of the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal in East Chicago, Ind., has stirred up controversy due to the high levels of PCBs and other contaminants in the canal’s sediments. A proposed Confined Disposal Facility (CDF) in East Chicago would provide a site for the dredged materials, and researchers hypothesize that poplar trees, planted in or around the CDF, could help mitigate further release of PCBs.

The Power of Poplars

The hybrid poplar tree is among the plants most commonly used in phytoremediation. “There’s a good reason for that,” Schnoor explains. “It’s a plant that grows very quickly and roots very deeply, and uses a lot of water. … Secondly, it’s a model plant from a molecular biology standpoint. We have the complete genome.”

Originally, researchers thought bacteria in the root zone were degrading the PCBs. The IIHR team has learned that there’s more going on. “We’ve shown that the plant material itself can transform PCBs,” Schnoor says. “That was a nice contribution.”

Schnoor and his team have completed several successful site clean-ups. Their longest-running work was at a former petroleum tank farm in West Virginia. The leaky tanks contaminated soils and a nearby creek. Schnoor and his team planted poplar trees at the site in 1999, which have now grown to maturity. The site is densely vegetated, and the oil has been substantially removed.

Making a Difference

Successes like that one help keep Schnoor motivated to continue working. “We really enjoy what we’re doing, and feel like we’re able to make a positive difference in the world,” he says.

Student Sam Bircher agrees. “It’s an honor to be working on an interdisciplinary team as talented and as dedicated as our phytoremediation group,” he says. “I’m also thrilled to be a part of a research project that is really … ‘doing good’ for our planet.”

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Last modified on June 29th, 2015
Posted on January 18th, 2011

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