Written by Andy Balaskovitz, Environmental Science and Policy Program
When materials like phosphorus and pesticides are used in agriculture, they often end up in the soil. What happens then – how do they work their way through soils? And what action can be taken if the contaminants migrate farther down to groundwater?
Ask new MSU professor Wei Zhang (ESPP and Crop and Soil Sciences), and you will gain insight into a complicated and — as yet — little understood process.
Zhang works at the microscopic scale in his laboratory in order to understand dynamics at a watershed scale. He focuses on the movement of man-made materials like agricultural chemicals and engineered nanoparticles, and also microbial pathogens. A better understanding of these interactions, Zhang says, could lead to advances in sustainable agriculture methods.
"It's important if they get released into the environment," Zhang said of contaminants. "If these particles get deeper, they might reach the groundwater."
And his research goes beyond just studying the movement of particles: He's also looking at new methods to remediate contaminated soil and water. One approach is known as "colloid-based remediation," or cleaning up contaminants with benign nanoparticles or microorganisms.
Engineered nanoparticles, Zhang notes, can be contaminants or used for remediation. "Some can do a lot of good things," says Zhang. "Some are used in the degradation of soil and water contaminants."
So: Zhang is identifying the particle transport process and ways to clean up the soil and water. Is that it? No, Zhang says. Next comes working across disciplines to consider the economic and social implications of his work.
"There are a lot of collaboration opportunities across campus," he said. "I think the social and economic issues are very important. We can come up with strategies and methodologies that will remediate contamination, but if it economically doesn't make sense, no one would do it. Environmental problems are largely economic and social. Without including them, the science is incomplete."
Zhang arrived at MSU in January after a one-and-a-half-year stint in Athens, Georgia as a National Research Council research associate. He obtained his master's degree and Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University and Cornell University, respectively. He obtained his bachelor's of science in environmental chemistry from Nanjing University in China.