Applying aquatic chemistry to solve our water quality problems

Posted on 02. May, 2013 by in Academic Departments, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Environment and Sustainability, Issues, Magazine, People, Research

Guest columnist Christina Remucal is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. She joined the college in August 2012.

Water is one of life’s necessities.

Christina Remucal

A New Perspective guest columnist Christina Remucal studies ways to remove contaminants from water. She completed postdoctoral research in Zurich, Switzerland and joined the UW-Madison faculty in 2012.

Growing up in the high desert of northern New Mexico gave me a deep appreciation for the preciousness of water. My family has its own groundwater well and, thankfully, it was drilled deep enough that it hasn’t gone dry. Many of our neighbors haven’t been so lucky. To this day, my parents still collect rainwater from the roof of their house to water plants in the summer. Our town celebrated big snowstorms in the winter because it meant good skiing in the nearby mountains, as well as more spring runoff to feed the rivers. The livelihood of so many people in our town depended directly on water and the entire economy suffered during droughts.

Providing clean water will be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. It is a problem rooted both in quantity and quality. Even on our blue planet, only 1 percent of the water on earth is accessible to us as freshwater in rivers, lakes and groundwater. Population growth, changes in land use and increased demands on water used during energy production will continue to put more stress on this limited resource. A changing climate will make our water supplies less predictable due to a higher incidence of extreme events, with droughts one year and floods the next. Even if we are able to meet these water challenges in the developed world, we still have not provided water to everyone on earth; one in six people worldwide currently does not have access to reliable and safe water sources. As the demand for water increases, we will be forced to turn to lower quality water sources.

Solutions to water quality problems are linked to wealth and development. In developed countries, the biggest water quality challenges are related to the removal of trace amounts of man-made toxic chemical contaminants, while the focus in developing countries is on treatment of waterborne pathogens and naturally occurring toxins, such as arsenic.

As an environmental engineer focusing on aquatic chemistry, I conduct research that is relevant to both situations because it provides insight into the fundamental processes that control the fate of contaminants and pathogens. The overall theme of my research is the formation and fate of reactive oxygen species, which can be used to inactivate pathogens in sunlight-based systems and in advanced oxidation processes. These same systems can be used to oxidize certain organic and metal contaminants in water.

By examining the underlying mechanisms of reactive oxidant production and metal cycling, I’m able to gain insight into solutions for water quality problems.

In my short time at UW-Madison, I have spoken to many students who are overwhelmed by the water issues we face. They want to do something to help, but are not sure where to start. It is impossible for one person to solve the problem on their own, but I know we will be able to meet these challenges together if each one of us is able to contribute. By combining an engineer’s drive to solve problems and our students’ passion for making the world a better place, I believe our research on aquatic chemistry provides hope for addressing our water quality issues here in Wisconsin and worldwide.

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