Tuesday, November 19, 2019

What’s in our water and soil? UTSA professor studies the distribution of pollutants and nutrients in the ecosystem

Nov. 1, 2019 – A researcher at UTSA is involved in novel projects to better understand how different nutrients, metals, and metalloids are transferred in our groundwater, surface waters, soils and sediments and the impact that has on human health and the environment. 

Arsenic in drinking water is a global health risk that is being examined in-depth by Saugata Datta, the Dr. Weldon W. Hammond, Jr. Endowed Distinguished Professor in Hydrogeology. 

Professor Datta is a world-renowned hydrogeologist who is currently researching the movement of arsenic between aquifers and tidally influenced rivers along their interactive boundaries that are affected by heavy sediment deposition across major rivers of the world. 

Datta explained that under certain conditions, some rocks and sediments naturally contain enough arsenic to contaminate groundwater and arsenic is one of the most common, naturally occurring carcinogen found in the environment. He added that long-term human consumption of groundwater with elevated concentrations of arsenic is known to cause increased risk of cancer along with reported cases of higher rate of infant mortality and reduced intellectual and motor function in children. 

This project aims to understand the conditions under which arsenic is trapped or released in riverbank sediments. 

“Groundwater that has lots of iron and arsenic carries huge amounts of these elements to the riverbank sediments. It is important to understand the fate of this trapped arsenic and iron that co-exist. There is a close spatial association between arsenic and iron oxide minerals, a source of arsenic in naturally occurring aquifer sediments, and the co-occurrence between dissolved arsenic and iron in the groundwater and river waters are very important. The goal of this study is to develop a theory on the growth and fate of these iron-arsenic deposits,” said Datta. 

Professor Datta involved in sediment coring on the banks of River Meghna, Bangladesh.

Datta, his graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars from UTSA will observe which minerals the arsenic is bound to within sediments on the edge of the Meghna River in Bangladesh. They will translate this work to major rivers of Texas with similar layouts. 

Professor Datta has been studying groundwater problems in Texas, Kansas and neighboring states and will expand upon his research with the support of a nearly $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to work on this 3-year project. He is collaborating with Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin. 

In addition to his work on studying groundwater, Datta is a co-principal investigator on a project to work with graphene-based technology to develop an inexpensive phosphate sensor and sensor network capable of real-time monitoring of the phosphorous content in soil from different climatic regimes. Datta said that they are utilizing graphene’s exceptional electrical and electrochemical properties in this novel field soil health assessment. 

Phosphorous is one of the three major nutrients in fertilizer and is required for healthy plant growth. 

“It’s important to understand the variations of phosphate in soils and soil-water systems to address a number of global challenges such as food production, regulating fertilizer applications for crops grown in various soil conditions and climates,” explained Datta. 

The research team is monitoring the extent of the retention of phosphates before and after certain crops are grown in different soil types in West Texas and Kansas (soils with various moisture contents from the U.S. Midwest, and the UK’s East Midlands). The health of the soil depends on phosphates and nitrates, and many times these nutrients are wiped out by flowing and interacting ground waters. 

“We are developing inexpensive technology that will generate data from underground and transmit that data into a device that will give you an indication of what the phosphate levels of the soils are to assess how the nutrients change in the soil with time and other parameters of soils and we will deploy the sensors in the soil profiles for the real-time monitoring of the signal,” replied Datta. 

This technology and research can help farmers and those in the agriculture industry improve their crops and harvests and thereby positively impact sustainable agriculture and precision farming. 

The project is supported by an award through the “Signals in the Soil (SitS)” solicitation, a collaborative partnership between the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) and the United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) research councils. 

Datta is collaborating with Kansas State University, University of Alabama, and UK researchers from The University of Sheffield on this 3-year nearly $800,000 grant from the NSF. 

“I am so grateful that Dr. Datta brought his many years of research experiences and collaborative partnerships to UTSA, together with his enthusiasm and passion, to energize our water-related research, especially these new applications to healthy and agriculture/food industry”, said Hongjie Xie, chair of the UTSA Department of Geological Sciences.

Kara Soria


Learn more about Saugata Datta’s research.

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