South Ural State University makes a sizable contribution to protecting nature by solving serious ecological problems. Here, 20 years ago, doctor of technical sciences, professor Gennady Mikhailov and doctor of technical sciences, associate professor Igor Pashkeev developed a truly unique material able to solve global ecological issues – a sorbent with active nanocenters. The sorbent blocks the spread of radioactive materials and cations of heavy metals in open and underground water horizons.
Gennady Georgievich Mikhailov
Doctor of technical sciences, professor, head of the SUSU Department of Materials Science and Material Physiocemistry. Academician of the Higher Education Academy of Sciences, honored scientist of Russia, Honored Metallurgist, Honored Worker of the Higher School.
Founder of the thermodynamic theory of deep steel refinement. Thanks to G.G. Mikhailov, diagram of the refinement of steel were built for the first time in international science and the large task of complex steel deoxidation was solved.
Nature is calling for helpThe problems of the ecology and pollution from industrial waste in the industrially-developed Chelyabinsk regional became worse in the 1990s. It was then, working on the issue of radioactive safety in the possibilities of using sorbent technologies in removing fallout from radioactive accidents, that Gennady Mikhailov and his coworker, candidate of technical sciences T.P. Lonzinger and candidate of chemical sciences A.G. Morozova, began developing the area removing manufacturing catastrophes. The researchers believe that the end of the Second World War and the following Cold War between the USSR and the NATO bloc, ecological issues moved to the background. The country faced a question of preserving their independence:
“Our defense industry at that time developed in record time. During the war and the post-war period, there was no time to follow sanitary and ecological norms. They needed to create new models of military technology and quality steel and refine ore. These technological processes required more and more territory to form slagheaps and waste from refinement. Every dump site of an ore refinement factory, in one way or another, violates the natural ecosystem. The dangerous substances may change their makeup, change into a dissolvable form, and begin to leave the geographic location of the dump as solutions and enter our water systems, which are absolutely not isolated from this impact,” says Gennady Mikhailov.
The researcher is sure that in every large city there must be an independent ecological police force for maintaining the safety of water sources, the atmosphere, and soil, since any damage by manufacturing companies of sanitary conditions can cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem. It is not helpful to blame all issues on the regional or city power – the ecological problems have snowballed so much that they have begun demanding a solution on the governmental level with special state programs and the allocation of sufficient financing:
“Let’s take our Shershin reservoir as an example,” continues Professor Mikhailov, “After 5-6 days in hot weather, the water begins to bloom, and after 10 days, the fish go to shore because of a lack of oxygen and the presence of salts from heavy metals in the water. Water from the Ural Mountains goes into this reservoir. Can you imagine how much sand, dirt, and industrial and agricultural waste it carries? Everything sits at the bottom of the reservoir, and the amount of water reduces in the heat. As a result, the concentration of organic and mineral wastes from human activity increases. What Chelyabinsk needs now is the sanitation of our main water artery – the river Miass! We need to clean the bottom, remove the thicket of algae and decomposed organic materials, elevate the flow of water, move livestock watering places away from the river banks to a new place, and solve the issue of domestic wastewater in villages. And all of this entails colossal, multimillion-ruble costs! No local or regional budget is able to affect this situation, because millions of hectares of land are affected. A huge amount of funds are needed to process the dangerous substances – comparable to the cost of the companies themselves. Destroying a business means thousands of people lose their work. There must be a federal budget for Russian environment. Saving Russia’s environment means saving the whole population. This would help us reduce allergic and cancerous illnesses.”
Lay Karachay can be Saved
The financing of cleaning businesses using funds from the federal budget may also be insufficient. It is necessary to find a substance that is, on the one hand, effective, and on the other hand, less overhead for companies and the region. Gennady Mikhailov, together with colleagues from the Laboratory of Microanalysis at SUSU, was able to find such a substance whose cost fluctuates within a few thousand rubles a ton:
“Studying the technologies of radiation safety in the simplest conditions we found that in relation to radioactive elements there is a substance which could absorb these elements (sorbent) and does not release the absorbed radioactive elements. We recommended pouring a 15cm layer of sorbent on the bottom of Lake Karachay. The material itself is porous and quite light. It ‘takes on’ dangerous substance at the sludge level of the lake and will hold radionuclides. This is the same thing as if we have ‘imprisoned’ radioactive elements ‘in jail’ – they are still there, but they cannot spread!,” notes Gennady Georgievich, continuing, “The Americans created the atom bomb in 1945, while in the USSR a detonation was only possible in 1949. While work on enriching uranium was active, weakly-radioactive waste materials flowed right into the Karachay Lake. As a result, a significant amount of fissile materials built up in the body of water, especially in the sludge layer. In heat, the lake dried up, and a portion of these materials stayed on the shore, and the wind carried radioactive dust, thereby increasing the dangerous aura to tens of meters from the body of water. They poured rocky soil and concrete blocks into the lake to fight this effect – so there wouldn’t be any water. But the fissile materials haven’t gone anywhere – they stayed in the lake and, of course, pose a threat of accidental distribution.”
Red Creek Must be Stopped
At this time, a team of South Ural region researchers, under guidance of Gennady Mikhailov, has focused their strengths on the issue of disinfecting industrial sewage and local reservoirs. The situation at a few of them is critical.
“The results of the maximum-permissible concentration of chemical substances in the Karabash region water may be exceeded hundreds of times over. This is from lead, copper, zinc, iron, manganese, nickel, cobalt, arsenic – almost all of Mendeleev’s table! Even in those regions of Karabash where manufacturing work is no longer active, in the trees, in the soil, and in the air there is dust and gas which are washed out by rain and enter the soil then the groundwater and concentrate in the so-called “Red” creek. This creek enters the Sakalga River, which further moves to the Miass River, and finally in the Argazin water reservoir, water from which all of the population of the Chelyabinsk region drink! According to the Institute of Geology and Geological Chemistry of the Ural Regional RAS, more than 2 million tons of heavy metal salts have drained off. Samples of the sludge show extremely low Ph levels (the level of acidity) in sludge deposits – a level of 2 in place of the necessary 7-8. There is acid there! And now, we need urgent actions which can fix the situation. Our sorbent in particular has the ability to bring the acidity to the needed Ph level,” says Gennadiy Georgivich.
According to Gennady Mikhailov, sorbent could fix the situation, however it is necessary to move its production to the industrial level. We need industrial strength, we need help and financing from the government. It is necessary to bring in economists, biologist, hydrologists, and different specialists in to solve this problem. At this time, this unique absorbent material is being made in small batched in small chemical laboratories at SUSU. At the local level, Gennady Mikhailov and his team are trying to demonstrate to regional businesses the necessity and efficacy of sorben:
«A few businesses have asked about our development. In particular – Kyshtym Copper-Electrolytic Plant, whose circulation cycle needs cleaning. Having received a grand within a government assignment, we have improved our invention – we created sorbent with new technologies with active nanocenters using the wastes of industrial manufacturing containing magnesium (from the factory Magnezit in Samka). This new sorbent includes photocatalytic centers which destroy organic bonds. If we input this in the circulation cycle of KCEP and the results please everyone, then the factory will become the largest consumer of sorbent. The Magnezit factory is considering the necessity of allocating equipment for the industrial manufacturing of sorbent,” says the researcher, sharing his plans.
To the question of seeking a Nobel Peace Prize for his discovery, Gennady Georgievich smiled sadly and said that it is still too early to think about this. Society can only evaluate the contributions made by scientists when their developments have been implemented all around and have demonstrated their effect. The South Ural regional researchers believe that they have found an effective and affordable solution for the most important civil issue for saving the environment. The rest is up to investments.