Dr. Adam Kiefer Named to Inaugural All-Southern Conference Faculty Team

Dr. Adam KieferOver the last three summers, Mercer University students, led by Dr. Adam Kiefer, associate professor of chemistry, have traveled to the cities of Portovelo and Zaruma in Ecuador through Mercer On Mission to carry out multiple service projects in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) communities. Artisanal miners use toxic elemental mercury to extract gold from crushed rock. Mercury is mixed with the powdered rock to amalgamate the gold, and the gold/mercury mixture is “burned” (heated), spreading the mercury into miners’ lungs and throughout the environment. The mercury is highly persistent and contaminates the soil, water and air. It also enters the food chain and bioaccumulates in miners and their family members.

Both Portovelo and Zaruma have highly elevated concentrations of elemental mercury in the air, albeit for different reasons. Portovelo’s elevated mercury concentrations result from the processing of ore with elemental mercury, as described above. In addition, during the comminution (grinding) stage of ore processing, other toxic metals such as lead, arsenic, chromium and cadmium are released into the environment. The city of Zaruma has atmospheric mercury pollution as a result of the “re-burning” and processing of gold. The re-burning takes place in urban centers and exposes members of the community not associated with mining to mercury vapor.

Teams from Mercer have developed analytical techniques using portable atomic absorption spectrometers and GPS units to map the cities and identify the location of excessive mercury pollution in the atmosphere. In doing so, the team has mapped the town to identify hot spots of mercury contamination in the air, which will inform future programs to remediate the mercury contamination as well as develop new systems for capturing the mercury before it is released.

As a result of this research, Mercer On Mission is developing a “center of strength” in Ecuador, where numerous other programs will address the needs of ASGM communities. For example, teams of business students led by Dr. Antonio Saravia, assistant professor of economics, have evaluated coffee production as an alternative to mining in the region, and they will continue to examine the unique economic processes of ASGM communities. In 2017, teams of engineering students led by Dr. Laura Lackey, professor of environmental engineering, will develop systems to capture mercury in the region and determine sources of water contamination.

Mercer On Mission: Ecuador