Grant to help chemistry department expand focus on environmental issues

CULLOWHEE — Western Carolina University’s chemistry department is using a grant from the National Science Foundation to expand its focus on environmental chemistry and create opportunities for WCU students to play a role in solving the region’s problems of air, water and soil pollution.

The grant of $76,048 will fund half the purchase costs of four new pieces of complex scientific equipment, including an inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer (ICP-OES), an atomic absorption spectrophotometer (AAS), a high-pressure liquid chromatograph (HPLC) and an ion chromatograph (IC). Those four pieces of equipment, which have been purchased and installed in WCU chemistry laboratories, will allow students to detect pollutants in soil, water and air samples, and to study the treatment of chemical waste, said Roger Bacon, WCU professor of chemistry.

The ICP-OES converts atoms to a high-energy plasma in which metal atoms release light energy with a specific intensity and wavelength. Those two characteristics will allow students to determine the identities of unknown atoms, as well as concentrations. The IC apparatus separates ions based on their electrical charge and size. It allows researchers to detect ions such as nitrate, phosphate and ammonium, which are common ingredients in fertilizers and may be considered environmental contaminants, Bacon said.

All of WCU’s undergraduate chemistry students will benefit from the NSF grant, from those studying basic chemistry to senior-level instrumental analysis classes, Bacon said. Students studying aquatic chemistry will use the equipment to determine the effects of waste from trout hatching and rearing facilities on water quality. The experiments will not only prove educational for the students involved, but the data obtained may be useful to the local aquaculture industry, he said.

The new equipment also will permit the development of entirely new areas of study at Western. “Environmental Chemistry” is a new senior-level course focusing on the chemical reactions that take place in the environment and the transport of chemicals through the environment.

By combining the services of the ICP-OES, along with a portable air-sampling system and air flow meter purchased with NSF grant funds, students will be able to conduct air analysis projects. Air quality is a subject of vital interest throughout the region, and especially in nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Such experiments were previously impossible due to a lack of adequate equipment, Bacon said.

The NSF grant is just one part of WCU’s ongoing efforts to renovate its existing science classrooms and laboratories. Students in the WCU chemistry department have been using equipment purchased in the 1980s. The new equipment will allow for much more accurate and timely results as the students carry out research, Bacon said.

During the Nov. 7 general election, North Carolina residents will vote on a proposed $3.1 billion bond package for state universities and community colleges. If approved, part of the $98.4 million Western would receive would go toward renovation of science laboratories.