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Corporate and Foundation Relations
UI Foundation News
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Release: Sept. 27, 1999

Unocal gift funds UI research on use of vegetation to clean chemical spills

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A gift of $50,000 to the University of Iowa Foundation from the Unocal Corporation's Asset Management Group will fund research on phytoremediation, which uses the root systems of plants and trees to naturally remove hydrocarbon contamination from soil and groundwater.

The gift will assist UI researchers Lon Drake of the department of geosciences in the College of Liberal Arts, and Jerald Schnoor of the College of Engineering's department of civil and environmental engineering, who have pioneered the use of plant life for environmental cleanups since 1990. Professors Drake and Schnoor also are investigating the potential of this technique to treat heavy metal and radioactive sites and will use a portion of the gift to fund research in this area.

"Research performed at the University of Iowa in the area of phytoremediation has been applied at a number of our sites throughout the U.S., including Alaska," said Todd Ririe, Unocal's manager for environmental technology services. "The advantages of phytoremediation, and the subsequent acceptance by regulators of this environmentally friendly technology, is largely due to the expertise of University of Iowa researchers. The positive results that we have gained attest to the fact that sound research can lead to benefits for both the public and for corporations such as Unocal, and we're pleased to be able to support the UI's ongoing efforts in this important area of study."

Under the direction of the two scientists, Unocal has implemented phytoremediation projects in Alaskan oil field wetlands and the use of hybrid poplar trees to clean up former refinery sites in Ohio and West Virginia. The company has undertaken similar projects utilizing willow trees at a former oil field site in California and is currently seeking regulatory approval to apply the technology at other sites in the U.S.

"We are very pleased to have worked with Unocal at several locations where phytoremediation looks so promising," said Schnoor. "This gift will further our research into understanding the exact role that plants can play in degrading waste chemicals and into identifying plant enzymes and exudates which stimulate these transformations."

Under certain conditions, phytoremediation can replace the more traditional and typically expensive mechanical technologies, which are often invasive and harmful to habitats. Phytoremediation has proven to be a clean, quiet, economical, and aesthetically pleasing means of removing hydrocarbons and other contaminants including nitrates, pesticides, and landfill leachate.

Unocal, headquartered in Brea, Calif., is a leading global oil and gas exploration and production company with significant pipeline and power plant development projects worldwide. The Asset Management Group is responsible for the management and disposition of surplus company real estate.

The University of Iowa Foundation is the preferred channel of support for private contributions to all areas of the University of Iowa. Foundation staff work with alumni and friends to provide resources for research, scholarships, professorships, building renovations, equipment, technology, and other forms of support for the UI.