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Ohio University civil engineering professor’s coffeehouse lecture highlights acid mine drainage cleanup

Marissa McDaid | Sep 23, 2019
Riefler Science Cafe

Ohio University civil engineering professor’s coffeehouse lecture highlights acid mine drainage cleanup

Marissa McDaid | Sep 23, 2019

The first Science Café of the school year kicked off Wednesday, featuring Russ College Department of Civil Engineering Chair and Professor Guy Riefler. Drawing in a crowd that filled the seats of Baker University Center’s Front Room coffeehouse, Riefler showcased his decade-long research aimed at turning polluted stream water into artist-grade paints and pigments.

“My story starts 360 million years ago,” Riefler said before diving into an examination of the Appalachian landscape that looked at the geology and chemistry of the world around us.

Riefler explained how the vegetation of the Carboniferous period now exists as coal in the earth below us. That rich energy source, which developed southeast Ohio, led to more than 600,000 acres of underground mines being carved throughout the region. But after coal mines shut down, their caverns filled with water. Chemical-laden water then seeped from abandoned mines, filling nearby streams with sulfuric acid and ferrous iron. This mixture, referred to as acid mine drainage (AMD), reacts with oxygen to produce iron oxide, poisoning wildlife and vegetation. Riefler poured a beaker of polluted water to illustrate his point. Adding hydrogen peroxide, he quickly oxidized the water into a murky orange, which can be seen in nearby streams.

Riefler learned over time that iron oxide was – and still is – used in some of the oldest and most stable paints in history. He noted that the United States imports 178,000 tonnes of synthetically produced iron oxide paint annually from China.

“Here was my thought: What if we go to one of these polluted sites, built a facility, capture the water as it came out of the mine, clean it – and sell the iron we take out of it?” Riefler said.

Riefler partnered with Ohio University Painting and Drawing Chair and Professor John Sabraw on a project to develop paint pigments, ultimately leading to a partnership with Rural Action to build an AMD remediation pilot-scale plant that uses the pollution to create paint pigments. The plant, in Corning, Ohio, is a test facility to scale-up the lab experiments to a continuous treatment plant, although it only processes a small amount of the water. . Sabraw also helped to establish a relationship with Gamblin Artist Colors, who produced a limited number of the duo’s AMD paint colors.

The team’s goal is to develop a $7.5 million water treatment facility in Truetown, Ohio, that could capture 7,200 pounds of iron per day. Riefler said selling the iron to art and paint companies could turn the cleanup effort into a profitable venture that creates jobs.

Athens community member and retired Chauncey Elementary art teacher Lynda Berman attended the talk to hear about both the paint production process as well as the project’s environmental impact.

“My husband and I have been working very hard with the group that’s trying to prevent the coal company that’s interested in opening a mine in northern Athens County,” Berman said. “Johnson Run has 17 species of fish that are at risk if they proceed with the mine they want to open up.”

Catch the next Science Café on Wed., Sept. 25, at 5 p.m. when Assistant Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering Felipe Aros-Vera speaks about “Interconnected Networked Societies: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.”

Colleen Carow contributed to this story.