Note to readers...

more technical content to come after a couple of research tasks are completed...

Hey there - it’s been a while so I wanted to check in with an update.

I apologize for the radio-silence over the past few weeks. Colleagues and I are scrambling to put the finishing touches on a couple of papers to submit for peer review and hopefully publication.

One paper is a detailed exploration of the effects of treating biochar feedstock with base and solutions of different alkali- and alkali-earth metals (sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium). Matt Bentley did the pioneering work on generating astonishingly adsorbent biochar from feedstock pretreated with a solution of wood ash leachate (peer-reviewed article; BWT book summary section). This next paper, with Matt as the lead author, systematically investigates the effect of pH and different concentrations of key metal cations known to be active during pyrolysis that alter biochar pore structure and its ability to adsorb trace organic chemicals from waters containing background dissolved organic matter (DOM). Not only will this work help us to better understand the phenomenon that Matt discovered in the “ash activation” process, it also identifies a range of optimal feedstock treatment conditions and elucidates some really interesting and perhaps counterintuitive connections between biochar pore structure and trace pollutant adsorption capacity when our old friend DOM is hangin’ ‘round messin’ with the water treatment process. Matt, I, and the other coauthors are doing a big push to get this paper ready to submit ASAP.

The second paper quantifies uptake of eleven really really difficult-to-adsorb fluorochemicals from groundwater, surface water and wastewater by biochar. As discussed back in Chapter 2, several thousand individual PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkys substances) have entered the biosphere, water sources, and our bodies over the past several decades due to release from a wide variety of industrial, municipal, and domestic sources. The compounds in the study we’re writing up now include representatives of major PFAS groups including sulfonates (including our sentinal compound perfluorobutanesulfonate, PFBS), carboxylates, as well as branched and linear ether compounds (including our sentinel ether compound GenX). The focus of the paper is on spectroscopic measures (ultraviolet and fluorescence parameters) that can be used as surrogate indicators for PFAS removal in biochar water treatment systems. Until someone invents an affordable high-resolution mass spectrometer that fits in a backpack and can be carried way out into the back-of-beyond for off-grid PFAS quantitation we have to rely on proxy measurements made using comparatively inexpensive portable instruments (like this UV absorbance field spec that we’ve used for years of monitoring data collection).

The research comprising this second paper was performed by my friend and colleague of many year Ms. Myat Thunder Aung of Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) as part of her Master’s thesis at NC State University. I was Myat’s research advisor during our time at NCSU. She successfully defended her thesis last summer and then returned to Yangon in the fall to be with her family and to look for work.

Shortly after recovering from a bout with COVID in January Myat found herself at ground-zero of the protests that erupted against the military coup of February-1 and the ensuing violent repression by the junta and police forces. For over two months now the junta has been committing gross atrocities and human rights abuses against citizens throughout Myanmar/Burma with the death toll recently surpassing at least 550 people. If you want to learn more, The Irrawaddy is a dependable English-language news source. Myat has also been posting information updates via her Facebook page. Warning - conditions in Burma are truly horrific and a lot of the photos and videos show violence (e.g., people being ruthlessly beaten by police or military) as well as images of people who have been gravely wounded and/or killed.

Myat inspecting biofilm (schmutzedecke) formation in one of the biological slow-sand filter units at Pun Pun farm in northern Thailand, 2016.

The military junta has been shutting down internet access in Burma at regular intervals in effort to limit information about its violent abuses reaching the international community. The conditions there make academic publishing inconvenient not to mention frankly trivial compared with grassroots efforts to restore peace and some semblance of democracy to the country through activism by its brave young people.

All I can do is sit on my hands here in bucolic western North Carolina while many of my friends and colleagues risk their lives for justice in Burma. One thing I can do, though, is take the reins of moving segments of Myat’s thesis research into the peer-reviewed literature and from there into venues such as this book where it can be accessed and utilized by those who most need it. Accordingly, a couple of colleagues and I are assembling Myat’s work on UV and fluorescence water quality monitoring parameters into the aforementioned paper. We’re on a tight deadline to target a journal special issue where this work would, if accepted, find an excellent home.

I have not been posting on substack over the past few weeks since my attention has been absorbed by assisting in the production processes of Matt’s and Myat’s papers. Also, Spring is rolling into the Blue Ridge province of western NC and with it the acceleration of needful activities on the farm. We’ve had some new arrivals, pictured below, and as always there’s brush to clear, firewood to cut, structures to erect or tear down or repair, broken small machinery to fix, and fences to mend and extend around new pasture for our growing flock of sheep and goats.

It’s seems like when I’m not writing about chemistry and adsorption science on this site I’m describing conditions of environmental damage and human deprivation that motivate the research - fairly depressing topics. The retreat of winter on the farm and the first flush of spring reminds me that there is great beauty and wonder in life, and much to be thankful for.

I wish you all the blessings of Spring and extend my deepest gratitude for your interest in and support of this work on biochar water treatment.


Spring arrives at Magpie Hollow Farm