TTU graduate student from Chile awarded for her environmental research

Posted by Lori Shull - Tuesday, January 31 2012


thumb AICHE_2011Tennessee Tech University doctoral student Cynthia Torres knows from experience the environmental damage the mining industry does in her native Chile.

Copper mines in the northern part of the South American country account for about a third of the government’s revenue, but cleaning up the contaminants, especially heavy metals, that are left behind is a problem. Heavy metals pose health risks to people, other organisms and their environments.

Researching and developing ways to improve the remediation methods have been the focus of Torres’ environmental science studies at TTU and at the Chilean university where she completed her undergraduate work in chemistry and a master’s degree in environmental engineering.

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers recently applauded Torres’ work, awarding her research an honorable mention in the environmental division at their annual meeting.

“She has been a delightful student to work with, since her passion and determination about her goals have been second to none,” said Pedro Arce, Torres’ adviser and co-author on the winning poster and chair of TTU’s chemical engineering department. “It is really wonderful that AIChE has given her the award in recognition of her leadership and dedication.”

Current methods of removing heavy metals, which include lead, arsenic and mercury, from contaminated soil are expensive, can expose workers to serious health risks and may not succeed in removing all the contaminants.

Torres has been developing a method using electrical fields, which is relatively simple to apply and environmentally friendly. However, using electrical fields heats the soil. That heat needs to be removed or the electricity will not be as effective.

Torres and Arce developed a modeling tool that details how soil reacts to electrical fields. That understanding will lead to better applications of the developing technologies.

Torres came to TTU in 2008 with a Chilean National Research Council fellowship. The organization is similar to the U.S. National Science Foundation in mission and prestige; she is the first award recipient to come to Cookeville through the program. She is studying environmental science and chemistry at TTU. Her work has been in collaboration with TTU’s chemistry and chemical engineering departments and the Center for the Management, Utilization and Protection of Water Resources.