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Staff Accomplishments

Slick technology nabs sticky chemicals

March 2004
Identifying how chemicals change in the environment can be a difficult job, but now tracking those changes is much easier with the addition of a new chemical testing chamber to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Until now there have been many unknowns in determining how chemicals react in the environment,” said Kathy Probasco, senior research scientist at PNNL. “The Chemical Testing Chamber provides a tool for understanding hard-to-measure chemical mixtures released to the environment from various emission sources” stated David Maughan, the chamber designer. The challenge has been to develop a way to measure a group of very sticky chemicals called semi-volatiles. These chemicals are key ingredients in pesticides and herbicides and can also be a component in chemical weapons. They have very low vapor pressures, are available usually in very low concentrations and are difficult to measure. “Their stickiness enables them to coat vegetation, equipment lines and surfaces so that getting enough material to measure has been very difficult,” Probasco said. From Teflon walls to heated, glass-coated sample lines, PNNL’s testing chamber is such that scientists can successfully analyze and measure semi-volatiles, as well as, volatile and particulate chemicals. The PNNL chamber simulates atmospheric conditions inside a controlled environment, using clear Teflon sheets for walls and black lights in the ultraviolet range to mimic the sun. Ozone and other photo-oxidants can be added in quantities found outdoors, creating an environment where chemicals react as they would in the atmosphere. Understanding how semi-volatiles react in the environment is important because these chemicals and their byproducts can remain stable for weeks and months after they are released. With the Chemical Testing Chamber, users can identify very small quantities of the chemicals, understand the chemical’s “lifetime,” and also determine the places where the chemicals would easily be collected in the environment. In most cases, air samples are collected and released in the simulated environment created by the testing chamber. For special testing purposes, PNNL’s testing chamber can be constructed in remote areas. The new facility is fully operational and is available to regulatory agencies, state governments, the military and commercial businesses. In addition to addressing issues associated with homeland security, uses of the testing chamber could include evaluating indoor air quality related to sick building syndrome in large buildings, examining the re-circulated air in airplane cabins for health risks, monitoring auto and industry emissions and developing and testing more accurate sensors.

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