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New Method Could Clean Up MTBE Contaminated Water

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WESTVILLE, IN, April 17, 2000 - A new method developed at Purdue University could be used to clean up groundwater contaminated by the gasoline additive MTBE.

Presenting his work at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Purdue's Reynaldo Barreto said his technique, which uses high-energy ultraviolet light, could accomplish what conventional methods can't, which is simply to remove MTBE from water sources.

MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, has been in the news quite often lately because of the groundwater contamination it has caused. On the one hand, the gasoline oxygenate cleans auto emissions by promoting a more complete burn of the fuel. However, offsetting this plus is the fact that MTBE's chemical composition allows it to move quickly through soil and makes it highly soluble in water, which in turn has caused the groundwater contamination problems. Couple these traits with its foul odor, our ability to detect it at very low levels and the fact that it does not readily biodegrade in nature, and you have a potentially huge problem with water quality.

"If I were to dilute an ounce of MTBE into a ton of water, you would be able to smell the MTBE," Barreto says.

Barreto's technique for removing MTBE involves exposing tainted water to high-energy ultraviolet rays, which eventually turns the compound into carbon dioxide. To make the reaction possible, oxygen is bubbled into the water and the common catalyst titanium dioxide - an ingredient of white paint - is added to the water.

"After a couple of hours I can eliminate the bulk of the MTBE," says Barreto, who has been working on the method for about nine years. "But the technique that I've developed at this point has never been tried in a commercially viable way. "I have shown it to a number of engineers and they've all said, 'This isn't cost effective because it takes too long,' to which my response is, as compared to what? It's faster than what we have now, which is nothing."

Details about the technique were published in the journal Water Research in 1995. The work discussed at the ACS meeting focused on the technique's use in removing two possible MTBE replacement compounds from water. Those possible alternatives to MTBE are ethyl tertiary butyl ether, or ETBE, and tertiary amyl methyl ether, or TAME.

"Rather than trying to develop techniques after compounds have contaminated ground water, why not try to figure it out now?" Barreto says. "MTBE was put into gasoline before anybody knew anything about it."

EarthVision Environmental News, April 17, 2000

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