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Berkeley Lab Researchers Win Three Popular Science "Best of What's New" Awards

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By Jeffery Kahn,

November 12, 1996

BERKELEY, CA -- Researchers at Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have been named as the winners of three of Popular Science magazine's "Best of What's New" awards for 1996.

Each year, the editors of the magazine review thousands of new products, technology developments, and scientific achievements. Then, they select 100 for distinction as the "Best of What's New." This year, the winners were announced at a November 12 awards event in New York City. They include:

The editors of Popular Science recognized Moridis and Pruess for their development of a radically new technique for containing underground hazardous waste. To immobilize waste, researchers drill a series of wells outside the perimeter of a contaminated area, and then inject a fluid into the ground. Once in the ground, the fluid gels, forming an impermeable barrier that contains underground waste and prevents its spread. The technique has been field tested but still is in a developmental stage.

Currently, the state of the art of cleaning up sites with contaminated soils is the same as it was 30 years ago -- contractors dig the soil out and truck it to a hazardous waste site. That's because contaminants are very difficult to strip from the soil. Once toxins get into the ground, just a few gallons of hazardous fluids can contaminate huge areas.

Unfortunately, the costs and limitations of the soil removal approach have severely handicapped the nation's cleanup efforts. Thousands of contaminated sites have been identified but few have been cleaned up. Over time, water in the ground can cause the contamination to spread. Depending on what is nearby, water supplies, rivers, residential areas, and human health can be further jeopardized by these delays.

"Up until now," says Moridis, "the country has been fighting a losing battle. We believe the new approach we are developing is a vitally needed supplement to today's standard cleanup method."

Gadgil's UV Waterworks, which was also a recipient of a Discover Magazine Award for Technology Innovation this year, has the potential to save millions of lives.

In developing nations, safe, home-delivered tap water is rare. Consequently, each year, waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery that are transmitted mainly through the drinking of unsanitary water, kill an estimated four million children under the age of five and make adults sick enough to lose billions of hours of work productivity and income. The two most common methods of disinfecting water in developing nations -- chlorination and boiling -- both have drawbacks and limitations. Chlorine disinfection requires a continual supply of chlorine bleach and trained personnel to make sure chlorine is added to water supplies at effective levels. Boiling is usually done over wood stoves in unvented rooms which poses health risks of its own and contributes to air pollution and deforestation.

Gadgil, who is from India and has had several cousins die from these diseases, worked after-hours creating a purification system that uses an off-the-shelf ultraviolet light to kill bacterial and viral contaminants. Running on a car battery if necessary, one unit can provide water for a village of 1,000 people. Each unit should cost between $250 and $600.

"What we've done," said Gadgil, "is build a device that makes water purification so inexpensive that it's almost impossible not to use it."

Modera was honored by Popular Science for his development of an elegant solution to the ubiquitous problem of how to seal leaky heating, cooling, and ventilation ducts. According to a 1991 study, sealing these leaks could save some one quadrillion BTU's per year in this country. That amounts to an annual energy savings of approximately $7 billion.

Currently, contractors use a variety of techniques to seal leaks in existing HVAC systems. Though sealing leaks can save a lot of energy and money, relatively little of this work is done because of the difficulty involved in locating the leaks. Also, in many instances, it is almost impossible to get to the leaky ductwork.

Modera's process resolves these obstacles. First, all grilles are temporarily sealed. Then, aerosolized adhesive particles are blown into the duct system and flow to the leakage sites, eventually sealing them. Compared to conventional duct-sealing methods, aerosol-based sealing plugs more of the leaks, is less time consuming and costly to homeowners, and provides better working conditions for the contractor.

The research to develop aerosol sealing was funded by the California Institute for Energy Efficiency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Electric Power Research Institute, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Berkeley Lab conducts unclassified scientific research for the U.S. Department of Energy. It is located in Berkeley, California and is managed by the University of California.

Popular Science features the winners of its "Best of What's New" awards on its website at

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