National Science and Engineering Week Part II

Tomorrow is the second ‘out-of-office’ day for National Science and Engineering Week.  This time I’m actually getting off campus and going to the Potteries Museum in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent for a How Science Works day.  I haCve to say that the programme reads like a bit of a who’s who from Keele – there are a lot of Keele folks there, and a lot of people from local and less local organisations.

Before I go on, I should plug the event on Saturday, also at the Potteries Museum being run by the Forensic Scientists at Keele and Staffordshire University.  CSI: The Staffordshire Hoard takes place on Saturday the 19th of March from 10.30am – 4pm and includes lots of hands on activities such as locating coins and identifying minerals.  If its anything like the last CSI day at the Potteries Museum (a Jack the Ripper event), it will be  great morning or afternoon out for anyone.

Anyway, I’m off to ‘How Science Works’ and I have 2o minutes to talk to small groups of school pupils about my research.  I was talking to someone after Wednesday’s sessions who asked how on earth I came to have two quite different areas of research (actually there’s three quite different areas of research, but they all make sense and are connected in my head). I shrugged my shoulders and said it just happened.  The question was which one to pick to talk about.  As a general overview, I’d say I stick metals on polymers and do interesting stuff with the results, but recently its grown to sticking stuff (metals and organic molecules) onto polymers.  There are a number of good applications for this kind of flippantly described research, including remediation of metals from water; drug delivery and catalysis.

Which one to chose?  Well I chose the remediation of metals from water because I think clean safe drinking water is something we take for granted.  We’re pretty intolerant of very minor disruptions to the service  (says she who had a hissy fit with a letter from the water company about cutting the supply for 4 different nights to clean the pipes.  4 nights, from 9pm to 6am.  4!) and in the UK have an extremely limited capacity to deal with major disruptions to service (for example those seen in Northern Ireland after bad weather caused the pipes to crack).   Putting a few very infamous incidents aside, our water is clean and drinkable.  For a great many people across the world, that is simply not guaranteed.

What do we mean by clean water anyway?  Simply we mean water that does not present a hazard to human health if drunk.  That probably means water that conforms to the WHO standards (for example, below 10 micrograms of arsenic per litre of water ), and can be obtained in sufficient quantity by those who need it.  Access to clean safe drinking water is a human right, yet it is denied to a wide range of people.  How do we know its clean?  The simple answer is, we don’t.  We have to take it on faith that the water coming from our taps is within those limits of quality.  Others aren’t so lucky.  In countries like Bangladesh, the hazards posed by drinking contaminated surface water (rivers, lakes etc) are huge.  Those hazards are mainly the threat of water born disease so it makes sense to try and access groundwater, free from human and animal contamination.  Unfortunately things are never so simple and for an estimated 10 million wells dug, the water is far from clean.  The underlying geology of the region must be considered, and in doing so, measurements of heavy metals made.  An estimated 70 million people are exposed to arsenic from their drinking water in concentrations that exceed both the current and previous WHO standard (arsenic below 50 micrgrams per litre of water).  And that’s just arsenic – underground water sources can turn up a wide range of elements including radioactive elements.

I’m interested in how certain types of material can be used to remove certain elements from water.  There is a certain disconnect between my area of interest and a  technology that would actually accomplish this on a large enough scale, and its not a disconnect that I find easy to address, but part of doing research is to study systems that actually interest you, and evaluate them for further development and that’s what we’re trying to do.  Tomorrow I plan to introduce the general system we use and demonstrate how it might work using arsenic as an example.  I’ve got my ‘props’ planned but the zeolite model from the undergraduate teaching lab is going to have to get a bit of a clean first!  Hopefully there will be some good questions from the groups.