Update on writing and field projects

A few items of interest to subscribers…

Karen villagers setting up camp in the jungle, where they fled to escape shelling attacks by the Burma Army. Photo from the Free Burma Rangers.


One ::: Dr. Kyle Shimabuku of Gonzaga University and I are making significant progress on the PFAS treatment and monitoring paper mentioned in my last update:

“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).”

We’re still well-immersed in crunching the numbers but the tentative outcome at the moment is that we believe we’ve not only identified a conservative approach to surrogate monitoring of PFAS treatment under low-resource field conditions, but also a method to predict PFAS breakthrough using spectroscopic and compound-specific parameters.

Additionally, we’ve expanded our dataset beyond PFAS to incorporate many common trace organic chemical pollutants found in wastewater, surface water, and groundwater sources (including several of our sentinel chemicals for biochar water treatment).

We’re currently testing the robustness of the method by incorporating experiments utilizing several different biochars as well as activated carbons into the dataset in order to encompass a wide diversity of adsorbents.

If that sounds like a lot of number-crunching, well, it is. Apart from morning and evening farm chores it’s taking up most all my time. Which is why I haven’t been uploading new content here. Thanks for your patience, and I am really excited to share the results of this work with you once our conclusions have been adequately supported and the calculations double-checked and re-checked and re-re-checked, and so on.


Two ::: I have been sporadically in contact with Myat Thunder Aung, who performed the original PFAS research we’re using to build these monitoring and prediction functions. The situation in Myanmar/Burma is very, very bad. Myat has been involved in protests against the junta since the coup began nearly two months ago, and in efforts of grassroots organizing for peace and democracy.

Recently three of her friends were arrested. She has been staying in the homes of different friends every night to (hopefully) avoid being traced by the police/military.

I am worried for her safety and for all the people of Burma suffering under this cruel and violent regime. If you are a religious person it would be appropriate to pray for them.


Three ::: Recently I had a conference call with my long-time colleague environmental engineer Nathan Reents, who lives in northern Thailand. We agreed that after the coming rainy season subsides (i.e., November-December-January time-frame) we will host another biochar water treatment workshop at Pun Pun Centre for Self-Reliance. (Video artist Darcy Muenchrath made a short film about one of our previous workshops viewable here.)

We’ll be planning the workshop over the next two to three months and as details become available I will notify subscribers.

We’re also planning to volunteer on a relief mission with the Free Burma Rangers. The Rangers provide food and medical relief, assistance, moral support, and even rescue to hill tribe communities in Burma suffering from natural disasters and political violence and repression. They are truly heroic and have been a source of inspiration for me and Aqueous Solutions for many years. A few years ago they adopted our water treatment system designs and began working with communities and health clinics in remote areas to install systems. In 2019 we hosted a team of Rangers at Pun Pun for a workshop. Since then they have deployed dozens of treatment systems in hill-tribe-controlled areas.

Nate and I are eager to help them continue to advance their efforts, especially in light of the escalating attacks on Karen villagers over the past month by the Burma Army.


Four ::: I want to express my continuing gratitude to all the paid- and free- subscribers to this newsletter. I deeply appreciate your support and enthusiasm for this work. I have received many many heartfelt emails of kind and encouraging words about this project. This is very touching and I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to write.

For those who are able to engage at the paid-subscriber level, you should know that your contributions are going directly to Aqueous Solutions to support our educational and workshop activities and volunteer missions like those mentioned above, and to support our pro bono consulting work with grassroots collaborators such as Caminos de Agua in Mexico.

I have never drawn a salary from Aqueous Solutions (though Aqueous funds are used to cover travel and living costs for myself and other team members during project missions). Thankfully, Rachael and I are able to make ends meet with her as the breadwinner. This frees me up to be a “guerrilla researcher” as she calls me, burgling the knowledge aristocracy that is the peer-reviewed literature, translating it, and making it available to those who can most benefit from it.


I/we have got to keep my/our head(s) down in the depths of the data for the next few weeks and get two or three major studies across the finish line and (hopefully) on their way into the scientific literature. But I/we will return to regular practical posting here on substack ASAP. Thanks for your patience and continued support.