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Gem of a project, New wave for wastewater management, 'Videophilia' may doom national parks

by Stephen K. Ritter
July 31, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 31

Gem of a project

Robert T. Downs, an associate professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona, is on a mission. He and his colleagues are out to create a library of Raman spectra of Earth's 4,000 known minerals. This isn't a quirky hobby, like creating the world's largest ball of aluminum foil, but rather it's a practical compilation of data.

Downs, mineralogist George R. Rossman of California Institute of Technology, and an army of student researchers collect X-ray diffraction data and conduct electron microprobe analysis of mineral samples to identify them. Team members then record the Raman spectrum to obtain the characteristic fingerprint for each mineral, Downs explains. They have made it through about half of the minerals so far, and after they finish, they will be shooting for Mars.

Downs is working with Arizona chemist M. Bonner Denton to develop a pocket-sized Raman spectrometer that will be used on the 2009 Mars rover to identify minerals. The comprehensive library of Earth-based mineral spectra will help out on the red planet.

The small Raman unit is further envisioned as a useful tool for "people in all walks of life to identify unknown materials in a simple and straightforward way," Downs adds. For example, a quick zap could verify the authenticity of a piece of jewelry or detect arsenic in well water, he says.

The spectral library project, called Rruff, is accessible on the Internet (rruff.geo.ari It's being financially supported by gemstone collector Michael Scott, a physics graduate of Caltech and founding president of Apple Computer. Rruff is the name of Scott's cat.

Credit: Courtesy of Mark van Loosdrecht
Credit: Courtesy of Mark van Loosdrecht

New wave for wastewater management

From an environmental and cost perspective, it would be a good idea to collect urine and treat it separately from other sewage, according to environmental engineers Jac A. Wilsenach and Mark C. M. van Loosdrecht of Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands. Now that doesn't sound very pretty, but it makes sense considering that urine accounts for less than 1% of wastewater going to treatment plants and contains 50 to 80% of the nutrients.

As part of Wilsenach's Ph.D. research, he figured that it would be more energy efficient to process concentrated urine, and that some of the major nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen compounds, could be reclaimed and used as a raw material. Specially designed toilets and holding tanks would be needed to collect the urine without diluting it with water. Note to men: You will have to sit to pee.

For Newscripts, reducing the environmental pressure on surface water is the most intriguing possibility stemming from Wilsenach's research. It would be a major achievement if drug metabolites in urine, which often are bioactive and potentially toxic in the environment, could be prevented from entering waterways.

'Videophilia' may doom national parks

Is the American love affair with nature over? A report in the Journal of Environmental Management says it may be true.

Per capita national park visits grew steadily from the 1930s up until 1987 but have dropped significantly since then. Ecologists Oliver R. W. Pergams at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Patricia A. Zaradic of the Stroud Water Research Center, Avondale, Pa., took a look at what the numbers might mean in a study funded by the Nature Conservancy through a National Science Foundation grant.

They found that 97.5% of the decline is attributed to the growing amount of time people spend watching movies (including ones about nature), playing video games, and surfing the Internet and to some extent to the cost of gasoline. Pergams and Zaradic came up with the word "videophilia" to define this "new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media."

The number crunching in the study is a little suspect because the total number of park visits has actually continued to rise. The concerns of the researchers still hold though: They fear that as people become less interested in nature they also will become less interested in "environmentally responsible behavior."


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