Penn State researchers receive $6.7 million from NSF for environmental kinetics center

September 30, 2004

The National Science Foundation has awarded a team of Penn State researchers $6.7 million to establish a new center for the study of environmental kinetics.

Susan L. Brantley, director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and her team of Penn State and U.S. Department of Energy collaborators received the award from NSF Divisions of Chemistry and Earth Sciences under the Environmental Molecular Science Institute (EMSI) program. An additional $2.5 million awarded by the DOE Office of Science, Division of Environmental Remediation Sciences will support DOE partners in their collaborative work on the project. The award, to establish the Penn State Center for Environmental Kinetics Analysis (CEKA), will be administered by the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, in its role as one of the Penn State Institutes of the Environment, directed by William Easterling.

The Center for Environmental Kinetics Analysis will bring together chemists, geochemists, biochemists, soil scientists and engineers to measure and synthesize kinetic data for environmental systems and to promote modeling of the temporal evolution of such systems. The group will jointly try to answer the question, "How fast do pollutants and natural salts react with minerals in soils and aquifers?" The center will emphasize the problem of how to answer this question using laboratory or computer experiments and then how to scale the answer to natural systems. CEKA hypothesizes that training students to think about environmental problems at several scales of analysis will promote better approaches for analysis of environmental systems.

Problems of scaling - from the dimensions of a molecule to the dimensions of a field system -- permeate many technical disciplines. The center will work to increase understanding of scaling and environmental systems, not only among researchers, but among the general public as well. Toward this end, CEKA will prepare museum exhibits using a computer-generated 3-D visualization system. The 3-D visualization system will present movies demonstrating the wide variety of time-scales and length-scales that must be considered when dealing with environmental systems.

As an Environmental Molecular Science Institute, part of the center's mission is to create broad interdisciplinary educational opportunities. To accomplish this, CEKA will incorporate post-doctoral research, graduate and undergraduate training, and public outreach components.

The center will support up to 3 post-doctoral scholars and 15 graduate students to analyze reaction rates of minerals with and without bacteria. A summer undergraduate program will place students in the laboratories of CEKA faculty to conduct research in the area of environmental kinetics. CEKA participants at all levels will contribute data from their environmental kinetics research to web-accessible databases, and as content for 3-D visualization exhibits. These databases will allow fellow environmental scientists to predict the time evolution of complex environmental problems over various temporal and spatial scales. CEKA will also deliver outreach to K-12 students through teaching modules; and to fellow professionals through short courses.

The CEKA team includes Brantley, a geochemist who specializes in measurement of kinetics data in the laboratory and field, and James D. Kubicki, a geochemist assistant director who specializes in spectroscopic measurement and molecular modeling of kinetic system. The Penn State team includes faculty Peter J. Heaney, geosciences; Mercedes Maroto-Valer, energy and geo-environmental engineering; Kwadwo A. Osseo-Asare, materials science and engineering; Karl T. Mueller and Kenneth M. Merz, chemistry; William D. Burgos, Brian A. Dempsey, and Bruce E. Logan, civil and environmental engineering; and Carmen E. Martinez, crop and soil sciences.

The Penn State team will be joined by DOE scientists including Peter Lichtner of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Carl Steefel and Glenn Waychunas of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and John Zachara of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Included is Ryan Mathur, geology department at Juniata College. All of these researchers will host Penn State students in their laboratories.
Additional information about CEKA is at

Penn State

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