In the Lab

Scrap Tires Could Be Used at Golf Courses to Protect Environment
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have discovered a novel, environmentally friendly use for waste tires. Ground up bits of the tires can be placed beneath golf course greens, forming a protective environmental barrier.

In a paper accepted for publication in the journal Waste Management, the researchers show that ground tires can absorb chemicals from fertilizers and pesticides, preventing them from leaching into groundwater and contaminating the surrounding environment.

"Because many greens are built near groundwater levels or wetlands," explains Jae (Jim) Park, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, "it is vital to consider the mitigation of environmental contamination caused by the pesticides and fertilizers applied to golf courses."

Park has been studying the characteristics of tires for 12 years. In his latest study, he and his team found that tire chips can absorb nitrate, one of the main chemicals in fertilizers. Park says studies show that infants who drink water containing excess amounts of nitrate can become seriously ill and, if left untreated, could die.

For the study, the researchers inserted tire chips just 6 millimeters to 9 millimeters in diameter between layers of sand and peat root mix and gravel, both of which are commonly found beneath golf-green turf. The rubber layer was either 5 centimeters or 10 centimeters thick. The researchers studied the role of these layers both in the lab and on the field in 3-meter-square plots at a research facility in Madison.

In a year of testing, the layers of chips that were lab tested released about 20 percent less nitrate than the control layers. In the field, rubber layers released up to 59 percent less nitrate.

Based on the experiments, Park says, "Excess amounts of fertilizer will be absorbed by ground tires. They'll be trapped right there instead of traveling." Over time, he added, soil microbes will remove the nitrate from the rubber layer, which could remain intact for years.

While some environmentalists may be concerned that chemicals released from the tires will percolate into the environment, Park says numerous studies show the amount released is minimal compared to the amount the tires can trap.

Park says just under 1,000 pounds of pesticides are applied yearly to a single golf course. He adds that there are more than 23,000 golf courses in the United States.

Park estimates that about 72,000 tires would be needed to create a 10-centimeter layer of tire chips for an 18-hole golf course -- a number that could chip away at one of this country's major waste problems.

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Researchers Achieve Key Step in Developing Biology-Based Environmental Solutions
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced Nov. 13, 2003, that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-funded researchers have made a significant advance in efforts to harness the power of biology to solve energy and environmental challenges.

J. Craig Venter, PhD, head of the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA), Dr. Hamilton Smith and colleagues at IBEA have stitched together a genome of a phage, or a virus of bacteria. An article describing the accomplishment is in press with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"With this advance," Abraham said, " it is easier to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, a colony of specially designed microbes living within the emission-control system of a coal-fired plant, consuming its pollution and its carbon dioxide, or employing microbes to radically reduce water pollution or to reduce the toxic effects of radioactive waste."

In September 2002, DOE awarded a three-year, $3 million grant to IBEA to develop a synthetic genome, as part of IBEA's efforts to use biology and genetics to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and to produce biological energy sources that are cost-effective and efficient.

In April 2003, DOE increased its funding to IBEA by $9 million over three years. With the new funds, IBEA scientists will determine the genetic sequences of all the micro-organisms occurring in a natural microbial community. The studies will enable scientists to discover biochemical pathways and organisms that may lead to the development of new methods for carbon sequestration or alternative energy production.

"The future applications of this research go far beyond DOE," Abraham said. Other benefits could include the development of better vaccines, improved agricultural crop yields and an enhanced ability to detect and defeat potential biological threat agents, which is important to homeland security.

The IBEA research is part of the Genomes to Life program, which has as its goal understanding how life functions at the microbial level, then using the capabilities of single-cell organisms to help meet challenges in energy and the environment.

For more information on the Genomes to Life project, visit

More information on IBEA is available at

Photochemistry Research Could Have Environmental Impact
Using tools that improve by several orders of magnitude on the accuracy of microscopes and stopwatches, Alistair Lees is working at the molecular level to explore the effect of light on chemical systems. Lees' photochemical efforts could help to find less expensive ways to produce gasoline, make the environment cleaner and safer and enhance the quality of microcircuitry and the equipment that relies on it.

Working with $1.2 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and the American Chemical Society, Lees is studying hydrocarbon activation, particularly how some new rhodium and iridium chemical compounds act as catalysts to break apart the bonds of methane.

The reaction suggests the possibility that the small methane molecule could be built up to the size of the larger oil molecule. Methane, or natural gas, usually does not react with other compounds, but because it is both abundant and recyclable, it is an attractive alternative to oil. Lees' preliminary research indicates it might someday be able to replace oil in the production of many fuels, as well as a host of other products, including plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Lees also is finding ways to insert luminescent compounds into the cavities of some large molecules. Because the luminescence of such molecules changes substantially in reaction to their environment, they make excellent sensors.

Recently, Lees and his team found a compound that is a good sensor for cyanide. Others, he said, are sensitive to hydrocarbon vapors, which may help detect pollutants.

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This news item originally appeared in the February 2004 issue Environmental Protection, Vol. 15, No.2.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

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