"For some time, we weren't sure that it was going to be technically possible, but now we've cracked that nut and have shown significant differences not only between mercury from coal and, say, metallic forms of mercury that are used in industry, but also between different coal deposits," Blum said.
The fingerprinting technique relies on a natural phenomenon called isotopic fractionation, in which different isotopes (atoms with different numbers of neutrons) of mercury react to form new compounds at slightly different rates. In one type of isotopic fractionation, mass-dependent fractionation (MDF), the differing rates depend on the masses of the isotopes. In mass-independent fractionation (MIF), the behavior of the isotopes depends not on their absolute masses but on whether their masses are odd or even. Combining mass-dependent and mass-independent isotope signals, the researchers created a powerful fingerprinting tool.
Previously, Blum and coworkers investigated the possibility of using the method to identify sources of mercury contamination in fish. The coal project was more challenging because of the difficulty of extracting and concentrating mercury from coal. The researchers developed a system that slowly burns the coal under controlled conditions in a series of furnaces and then traps the mercury that is released.
More work is needed to perfect the fingerprinting technique, but Blum envisions using it in a number of ways to track mercury and assess its environmental effects.
"Coal-burning plants are being built in China at an alarming rate---something like two per week---and the amount of mercury emitted to the atmosphere is increasing dramatically. We think we may be able to detect mercury coming from specific regions in China and watch it as it's transported and re-deposited around the globe," Blum said.
Closer to home, a number of coal-burning power plants hav
|Contact: Nancy Ross-Flanigan|
University of Michigan