Kids vs. Mercury: Food fight at the creek

Posted: May 7, 2014 - 5:26pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 10, Issue 2 | 2014

For years Y‑12 has dealt with environmental mercury contamination from historical manufacturing processes. The potential for mercury to seep into nearby streams and harm aquatic life is a continuing issue. To combat the issue, Y‑12 recently opened its doors and a local creek to sharp, energetic sixth-grade innovators who have developed a proprietary technology to remove mercury from fish flesh.

“These students have a game-changing approach worthy of further research and development,” said Dennis Miller of Program Management. “We’re hoping to apply their unique method to further reduce mercury levels in the fish in East Fork Poplar Creek, which starts within the Y‑12 Complex and flows through Oak Ridge. Their approach is a fundamental departure from current methods that reduce mercury by cleaning up the environment.” They’ve formulated a fish food they expect will flush mercury from fish tissue.

During a chance conversation at a Huntsville, Ala., manufacturing meeting, Miller and Awesome Eyeballs team mentor Nadine Otterman recognized a rare opportunity to partner. Miller later invited the group to spend two days working with personnel from Y‑12, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Knoxville’s Conservation Fisheries.

The students observed current testing, participated in field activities, gained experience in analysis methods and finalized a path for their own experiment. Using the methods of professional scientists, “the kids worked with field scientists in the creek and helped calibrate a mass spectrometer,” said Otterman, who is also founder and president of the Young Innovators’ Society.

Established four years ago, the Awesome Eyeballs annually define a scientific challenge and work toward an innovative solution. In 2011 the team landed on reducing mercury levels in fish as its challenge. The initial research was successful, but they couldn’t verify their next test plan without better equipment. The connection with the Oak Ridge facilities was the missing link. “There’s a huge difference between a mentor telling the team they did a good job and scientists at Y‑12 saying they believe the method will work,” said Otterman.

At ORNL, environmental scientist Teresa Mathews led a tour of the aquatics laboratory and explained how mercury-containing samples are brought in, prepared, analyzed and reported to regulators and scientists. She also led a field study, helped the students collect fish samples from the creek and taught ways to analyze fish tissue for mercury.

Y‑12’s Dean Little engaged the students in evaluating their scientific theory about a specially formulated fish food. Impressed by the team’s background knowledge, Little said, “They have thought through the possibilities and have the courage to be wrong.”

The young innovators’ controlled experiment is now under way. “We are measuring the before and after mercury levels in fish tissue to determine the effectiveness of our new technology,” said one science team member. “Current results are encouraging because our fish are consuming the food material, which implies that fish in the wild will ingest food containing the proprietary mixture that removes mercury from their tissue.”

After these scientists-in-the-making “prove in” their technology, they’ll return to Oak Ridge to conduct experiments on fish in the natural environment. As they focus on a long-perplexing problem, the Awesome Eyeballs represent science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) training at its best.