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Bringing mercury pollution to light: U. scientist creates faster, cheaper way to measure mercury

Published: Saturday, Oct. 8 2011 10:41 p.m. MDT

A liquid solution of a perylene dye, which emits a green fluorescent light is measured with a custom hand-held photodetector.

University of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to mercury pollution, science researcher Ling Zang has seen the light.

Holding a special handheld photodetector, Zang holds a vial of liquid up to it. The liquid emits a strong fluorescent green glow, which tells Zang that the water has very little mercury. The fainter the glow, the more mercury.

"Mercury pollution is serious because of its accumulation throughout the food chain," Zang said. Unlike some pollutants, mercury persists in animals and people and tends to accumulate. High levels of mercury can result in neurological problems and DNA damage.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 1,921 tons of mercury was released into the air in 2005. About 70 percent of the global, non-iron industry, mercury pollution comes from Asian countries.

Zang said although the United States has taken steps to greatly reduce mercury emissions, it is estimated that 50 percent of U.S. mercury pollution comes in from outside countries by air currents and brought down by rain.

"It's not a domestic issue, it's a global issue," Zang said. "We still have mercury flowing into our air from outside countries."

Current methods of measuring mercury contamination in water and soil costs hundreds of dollars and takes weeks to process in a lab. Zang has developed a new method that is not only cheap, but can give immediate measurements using a portable device that can detect mercury down to .2 parts per billion. The EPA's standard for drinking water is 2 parts per billion.

Using a special fluorescent dye, Zang's device can read the level of light emitted from a sample to determine how much mercury is present.

Zang, who is originally from China, said he is hoping his invention will help growing industrial countries like China and India combat pollution and protect the environment.

Currently, he has created the company Metallosensors Inc., with the help of the University of Utah Technology Venture Development office. It has already recieved one $150,000 business research grant from the National Science Foundation, and has applied for a second $500,000 NSF grant. Zang's position as a researcher is also supported financially by USTAR, Utah's government-funded science and technology initiative.

"Our molecular sensor has enormous potential," said company CEO Glenn Prestwich. "We are perfecting the underlying chemical test, developing the handheld photodetector with partners in China, establishing a marketing plan in China, and securing intellectual property protection."

Zang said the partnerships with an environmental company from China was part of Gov. Gary Herbert's recent partnerships reached with Chinese officials this past summer.

Currently, Zang and his company are working on adding GPS and wireless capabilities to the device, which would automatically log mercury levels and locations to computer databases.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com

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