Jorge Alvarado

By Louise LernerFebruary 5, 2012

Jorge Alvarado is a chemist with Argonne's Environmental Sciences Division. He studies methods to remove toxic pollutants from contaminated soil and water, including the ubiquitous 1960s pesticide carbon tetrachloride.

When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?
If you asked my mom, she would say I always wanted to be a scientist—from an early age I was always mixing things together. I wanted to find the formula for invisibility, I think.

Then when I started college, I had this one professor, Juan Solano, who was very clearly in love with chemistry. His classes were amazing. I took every one of them. He knew everything by heart—all the oxidation numbers, everything. Later I told him, "It was your fault I went into chemistry!"

What do you do now?
Our research group combines geologists, chemists, computer scientists and hydrologists. We are working in the characterization, assessment and remediation of contaminated sites. The main contaminant in our research sites is called carbon tetrachloride. For decades, before it was discovered to be toxic, the Department of Agriculture used it extensively as a pesticide for the storage of grains throughout the Midwest. Carbon tetrachloride is a very volatile chemical used widely as a fumigant, dry cleaning agent, solvent and a fire extinguisher. It was also used to produce chlorofluorocarbons. Carbon tetrachloride was banned in the 1970's because of its carcinogenic properties and environmental effects. Today, carbon tetrachloride is a common contaminant in groundwater and soils.

In addition to characterization of the contamination, one of the main objectives of our research group is to study new ways to remediate contaminated sites. Each site is as individual as it can be, with different characteristics and distribution of the pollutants. To accomplish some of the research objectives, we are using new ways to clean up the contaminants in the ground. One of the techniques uses modified iron microparticles to clean up underground contamination. Other cleanup methodologies used by our research group included phytoremediation, spray irrigation and well extraction systems.

What's the best part about being a scientist?
The learning, definitely. Learning something every day, that's the best part. I often go home thinking, and in the morning the solution comes to me because I was thinking about it all night.

We scientists like to control our environment; we like to find solutions to every problem. I have a very analytical way of seeing life, and I always use the scientific method to solve any problem. I think personality-wise, many scientists are unique that way. We also like to share our findings with others in our community.

Why do you feel your work is important?
We deal with human health. We're trying to make sure that nobody gets hurt and that our natural resources are restored.

One of the most recent examples of something we have to deal with is vapor intrusion. This often happens when structures are built over areas contaminated with volatile organic compounds, such as carbon tetrachloride. The chemical seeps into the house from the basement through the concrete, which is porous, or any other opening in the structure. The main problem is that inhalation is the fastest way to move contaminants into the body. At this point, there is not a good theoretical background for vapor intrusion, the real effects on humans, or the factors affecting the intrusion of contaminants into the structure, such as weather conditions or types of construction.

Any regulation has to start with characterization and statistical analysis of all the possible effects of a chemical on the environment and on human health, minimizing all the possible uncertainties and making logical decisions on real exposure limits. We can help agencies study the chemical so they can protect people.

Do you have any advice for young scientists?
I moved to a new country to attend graduate school; from Costa Rica to the United States. I didn't want to at first, but today I consider it one of the best experiments of my life, and I would never change that decision. The learning of new cultures, new science and new places enticed me to continue learning more. I believe this was a very valuable experience in my life, and I think other people should do it too. Take new challenges and never stop learning.

What do you do in your spare time?
In my search for discovery and learning new things, I developed a craze for traveling. I have been to 40 countries in the world. I've hiked Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa; reached Camp 1 at Mt. Everest; rafted the Zambezi, Reventazón, Manzo, Colorado, Urubamba and Karnachi rivers; discovered the great architecture of the world, from the Egyptian pyramids, Machu Picchu and Chichen Itza to the great modern marvels of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Burj Dubai; I also have tried bland and spicy food and enjoyed a calm breeze at a paradise beach in the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean.

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