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Georgia Groundbreakers: Valentine Nzengung

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 11:15am
By:
Alan Flurry

Early research in explosives remediation to clean soil contaminated with perchlorate, an oxygen-adding compound used in the manufacture of solid rocket fuel, created a path for Valentine Nzengung, professor in the department of geology, to become one of UGA's most visionary inventors and a true Georgia Groundbreaker:

He has spent countless hours in his laboratory studying the properties of some of humanity’s most dangerous creations, from relatively simple compounds like gunpowder to advanced chemical warfare agents. But Nzengung isn’t interested in creating these materials; he wants to destroy them.

And that’s no simple task. It is easier and far cheaper to create explosives than it is to dispose of them. The relative ease with which they are manufactured has led to stockpiles of munitions and other explosives—often the unfortunate legacy of prolonged armed conflict—that many governments and private industries would like to be rid of, and Nzengung is ready to help.

“For many years, the simplest and most common solution was to intentionally detonate or burn explosives in open fields, but that process leaves behind a variety of dangerous byproducts that can pollute the air and soil or leech into lakes, rivers and aquifers,” said Nzengung, professor of environmental geochemistry at the University of Georgia. “Explosives and some of their byproducts have been linked to a variety of human illnesses, including cancer and damage to the central nervous system.”

It took many years of study, but Nzengung eventually discovered a way to destroy these dangerous materials safely and sustainably, and he called his creation MuniRem.

Short for “munitions remediation,” MuniRem is a white chemical mixture that, in its bulk form, looks a bit like flour. To use it, all technicians have to do is combine MuniRem with water and introduce it directly to explosive materials. This begins a very fast chemical reaction that neutralizes the explosives in minutes.

More importantly to Nzengung, the byproducts of the complete chemical reaction are all nonhazardous. So not only are the explosives easy to dispose of, but MuniRem can also be used to decontaminate soil and water in places like bomb ranges, mines or munitions factories where dangerous residues have accumulated over many years.

An outstanding researcher, mentor and teacher, Dr. Nzengung exemplifies a commitment to science designed to make the world a better place. We celebrate his innovative private-sector efforts as a model for our students and the university: bringing the responsibility for the tools of war and warfare full-circle with their safe and sustainable disposal.

 

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