Friday, October 15, 2010

Can Hungary's red sludge be made less toxic with carbon?

Indiana University News: The red, metal-laden sludge that escaped a containment pond in Hungary last week could be made less toxic with the help of carbon sequestration, says an Indiana University Bloomington geologist who has a patent pending on the technique.

The bauxite residue now covers 40 square kilometers south of the Danube River, and has caused the deaths of eight Hungarians and injured at least 150. The residue also has caused the extinction of life in a local river and as yet unknown environmental damage elsewhere. While human deaths in the wake of the disaster may have been strictly a result of the containment failure, injuries have mostly been attributed to the chemical properties of the sludge, whose high pH (between 11 and 13) can quickly damage and kill living cells. Bauxite residue is between 10,000 and 1,000,000 times more basic than pure water, which has a pH around 7.

"We propose one way to reduce the pH of bauxite residue is to mix it with another kind of industrial waste -- oil-field brine, which is a by-product of oil and gas production -- and then carbon dioxide," said IU Bloomington geologist Chen Zhu, who submitted a U.S. Department of Energy patent application in 2007 describing the technique.

The water-based brine provides the medium for carbon dioxide to dissolve. Once dissolved, the carbon dioxide can chemically react with water to form carbonic acid. The carbonic acid counteracts some of the red mud's alkalinity, and what's left -- the negatively charged carbonate -- can serve as a partner for positively charged metal ions, such as iron, calcium and magnesium. Some of these salts spontaneously precipitate out of solution, which is a good thing, since the metals in these salts will longer will be free to interact with, say, living matter….

A NASA image of the area surrounding the toxic sludge spill in Hungary. The alumina plant appears along the right edge of the image and incorporates both bright blue and brick red reservoirs.

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