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Using stable isotopes for solving environmental pollution problems

The MAiMA research group from the Universitat de Barcelona (UB) plays a vital role in the UPWATER project through the assessment of the feasibility of coupling isotope analyses to passive samplers for preconcentration of contaminants from groundwater bodies, across the three case studies. The UB’s participation is primarily driven by its interest in testing and validating the Compound Specific Isotope Analysis (CSIA) tool under diverse conditions.

Before delving into the specifics of MAiMA’s involvement in the project, it’s worth providing some background information on this research group. MAiMA conducts studies to explore and apply innovative technologies in stable isotope[1] analysis, mineralogy, and geochemistry, boasting over 25 years of experience and earning recognition as a leading contributor at the European level

Within the UPWATER project, the MAiMA team comprises, among others, the researchers Cristina Domènech (Principal Investigator for UB) and Clara Torrentó, and the MAiMA European project manager, Manuela Barbieri, who shared insights into their roles and contributions.

MAiMA fulfils three key roles within the UPWATER project. Being part of the project management team as technical coordinator, Domènech supports efficient implementation of all day-to-day operational and technical issues of the project. The main MAiMA focus is on Work Package 2, where the group tests the feasibility of using Compound Specific Isotope Analysis (CSIA) of targeted organic compounds sampled through ceramic passive samplers (CPS) in laboratory and pilot scale experiments, and on Work Package 4, where MAiMA will apply the isotopic tools in groundwater to identify contamination sources and transformation processes of inorganic and targeted organic compounds. MAiMA also plays a crucial role in disseminating project results to relevant stakeholders.

Validating new tools for isotopic analysis

The CSIA tool, specifically mentioned in the project proposal, aims to identify the source of contamination and assess the degradation processes of pollutants. Although it is a tool already used in the assessment of several pollutants in groundwater, MAiMA’s goal in the UPWATER project is to prove its use for contaminants of emerging concern preconcentrated from low concentrated groundwater sampled with CPS, compared to grab sampling, enabling a wider application of CSIA in future projects.

With their prior experience in using CSIA, Torrentó and colleagues are familiar with a significant portion of their work within the UPWATER project. However, there are still aspects that require further exploration. Torrentó explains that in order to apply their analysis tool to the specific compounds involved in the UPWATER project, new methods need to be developed. This task presents an analytical challenge to be overcome during the course of the project as the tool may not perform optimally when dealing with extremely low concentrations of the targeted contaminants present in groundwater.

According to Domènech, joining this European project offers MAiMA the opportunity to further develop its isotopic analysis capabilities. If the analysis tool proves to be effective when combined with the passive samplers, it can be applied in similar contexts to assess the environmental fate of pollutants in groundwater. This project allows MAiMA to expand its expertise and contribute to future initiatives in the field.

[1] Isotopes are different forms of atoms within the same chemical element, sharing similar chemical behaviour but varying in atomic masses and physical properties.

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