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Researchers study role of natural organic matter in environment

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The decomposition of plant, animal and microbial material in soil and water produces a variety of complex organic molecules, collectively called natural organic matter. These compounds play many important roles in the environment.

By studying the molecular mechanisms responsible for the complex behavior of natural organic matter, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are finding new ways to prevent the compounds from fouling water purification and desalination facilities.

Natural organic matter is ubiquitous in soils, waters and sediments. In agriculture, natural organic matter is important because of its positive effects on the structure, water retention and nutrient properties of soils.

Natural organic matter also interacts with metal ions and minerals to form complexes of widely differing chemical and biological nature. Solubility, mobility and toxicity of many trace metals are strongly correlated with the concentration of natural organic matter in soil and water.

Natural organic matter creates problems for the water supply industry, however, requiring removal to minimize water color and giving rise to potentially harmful chemical byproducts as a result of chlorination. Through a process called "bio-fouling," natural organic matter is also a major culprit in degrading the performance of membrane filtration systems used for water purification and desalination.

However persistent and universal natural organic matter molecules are in the environment, they are little understood. Natural organic matter has no unique structure or composition, cannot be crystallized and is extremely difficult to characterize.

Illinois researcher Andrey Kalinichev and geology professor James Kirkpatrick have used computer simulations and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to investigate some of the factors that contribute to the complex behavior of dissolved natural organic matt
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Contact: James E. Kloeppel
kloeppel@uiuc.edu
217-244-1073
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
11-Dec-2006


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