For over 20 years researchers and faculty members at Ohio University have been dedicated to revitalizing creeks and streams decimated by acid mine drainage, a common regional problem in Southeast Ohio due to closed and abandoned coal mines.
Over time, the abandoned mines fill with water, which reacts with iron sulfides left over from the coal removal and turns it to iron hydroxide and sulfuric acid when the water is exposed to oxygen. The acid leaches iron, manganese, cadmium, zinc, copper, arsenic and aluminum – a lethal combination that turns creeks and streams orange and killing most living organisms. Ironically, paint colors are often made from iron oxides, which sparked an idea for extracting pigments from polluted streams through a process of de-watering and drying that ultimately cleans the water and yields a usable product.
Ohio University engineer Dr. Guy Riefler, whose research focuses on acid mine drainage, experimented with salvaging useable pigment from the mine runoff, which turns bright colors when exposed to oxygen. He began exploring the possibility in 2007 with a group of undergraduate students, then in 2011 he secured funding to continue the project and devote a group of graduate students to the effort.
Lacking expertise in art and paint pigments, Riefler enlisted the help of John Sabraw, an artist and associate professor of art at Ohio University. Blending the arts and sciences together to sustainably develop new types of paint as a by-product of stream clean-up, the two have gained national media attention for their project from Science Friday, Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post, Quest Ohio and more.
Riefler and Sabraw hope to bring their sustainable paints to market in a local, sustainably-sourced business venture that would fund cleanup for the polluted streams – and possibly create a few local jobs in the process.
Riefler has served as the faculty advisor for the Ohio University Engineers Without Borders group in Ghana and has also worked with students in the WERC environmental design competition. He was awarded the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Mining Awareness Educator Award in 2009 and the Ohio University Transformative Teaching Award in 2011. He is a registered professional environmental engineer in the State of Ohio.
He investigates the chemical and biological interactions that affect the transport and transformation of pollutants in the environment. This work typically relies heavily on the use of analytical chemistry, molecular biology, and numerical modeling. Riefler's research currently focuses on the biodegradation of explosives contamination, phytoremediation, iron nanoparticles for groundwater remediation, chemical and biological processes in acid mine drainage remediation, and strip mining impacts on streams.