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Meet the Grantee: Niloofar Karimian

Fighting environmental pollution from metal mining activities

After our Grantee Dr Niloofar Karimian from Australia had to postpone her visit for almost 2 years due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, she and her Bayreuth hosts finally got to join forces to provide transformational new insights for assessing and remediating Antimony contamination in soil and water systems.

Dr. Karimian

What are the foci of your joint research funded by the Short Term Grant?

Niloofar Karimian: Antimony (Sb), a pollutant of priority interest by the European Community Directive, is a critical mineral resource that plays a significant and growing role in our daily lives. It is used in a wide range of emerging new technologies, such as liquid metal batteries for renewable energy sources. The increasing consumer demand, along with increasing mining activities, have led to numerous uncontrolled Sb emissions into soils and water, posing a serious health risk to the environment as well as to human beings. Therefore, understanding the fundamental geochemical mechanism controlling the bioavailability and mobility of Sb is important for its environmental risk assessment. Interactions with manganese (Mn) oxide minerals play a central governing role in the environmental geochemistry of Sb. However, traditional approaches to studying such interactions fail to account for the diversity and dynamism of manganese oxides, and the complexity of antimony retention mechanisms. This project aimed to resolve unexplored interactions between Sb and manganese oxides as potential cost effective and environmental friendly scavengers for toxic metalloid Sb. The intended outcome of this project is to provide transformational new insights for better management of antimony-contaminated landscapes and hazardous Sb-bearing wastes.

My joint research funded by the short stay grant enabled me to work directly with Prof. Dr. Britta Planer-Friedrich – a leader in the field of environmental trace metalloid geochemistry – and Dr Kerstin Hockmann – a specialist in Sb biogeochemistry whose research focus and interest lie at the interface of soil mineralogy and environmental geochemistry. This collaboration expanded my understanding of metal(loid) speciation and has led to one high-impact journal publication in the Environmental Science and technology Journal.*

In what way is your work interdisciplinary, and what does interdisciplinarity mean to you in academic work and life?

NK: This project aimed to examine the mineralogical and geochemical controls on Sb behaviour in Mn mineral rich contaminated soil. Fulfilment of the objectives of this research was only possible via an innovative characterization tool-box involving cutting-edge aqueous-phase speciation via ion chromatography coupled with inductively coupled plasma – mass spectrometry and synchrotron-based techniques for characterizing solid-phase metal(loid)-mineral interactions. This required an approach that is considered 'interdisciplinary' by traditional standards. It brought together collaborators with expertise in geochemistry, mineralogy solid and aqueous analysis to undertake the diverse range of methods that are needed to address the project's aims.

What is in your opinion the future of your field, and in what way can research in Environmental Geochemistry contribute to meeting the urgent challenges of our time?

NK: Antimony is particularly problematic in the context of metal mining activities. As such, severe environmental Sb contamination has been widely observed as a result of gold, copper, silver, and zinc mining activities. Given the vital role of the mining industry in the Australian economy and in the prosperity of many regional communities (with more than 1000 operating and 50,000 derelict mines in the country), the remediation of contaminated sites in eco-friendly and cost-effective manners is central to treating existing contamination as well as managing pollution from future activities. The outcomes from this project will provide fundamental new insights into coupling between Sb geochemistry and soil and sediment mineralogy. The corresponding process-level understanding of antimony-mineral sorbents interactions that emerge from these insights will contribute to a greater understanding of potential strategies for the remediation of contaminated environments and will facilitate better approaches for assessing and remediating contaminated soil and water systems.

What does international research mobility mean to you?

NK: International mobility is an important part of every researcher’s career. We researchers gain skills and experience by taking part in international collaborations and by working in other countries, institutions and industries. Although this research mobility for me considered a key steppingstone to further develop my scientific career through the acquisition of important scientific, complementary and networking skills but it also provided me with a life time experience and the joy of exploring the beautiful city of Bayreuth and meeting with my hosts and members of the department. This was an enjoyable and fruitful experience for me specifically after the disruption in my initial travel plans for almost 2 years due to Covid -19 travel restrictions.   

How did the current challenges influence your cooperation?

NK: The rationale behind my application for a Humboldt Short Term Grant was my intention to sharpen my scientific profile by building collaborations with research institutions overseas and by increasing the visibility of my research in the European research community. I was hosted by Prof. Dr. Britta Planer-Friedrich in the Environmental Geochemistry group and Dr Kerstin Hockmann in Hydrology / Experimental Biogeochemistry group at Bayreuth, which offered unique and world-class learning opportunities in trace metal/loids geochemistry techniques and provided me with the opportunity to meet and start research dialogue with many internationally recognised researchers including Professor Dr. Stefan Peiffer.

*KARIMIAN, N., HOCKMANN, K., PLANER-FRIEDRICH, B., JOHNSTON, S. G. & BURTON, E. D. 2021. Antimonate Controls Manganese(II)-Induced Transformation of Birnessite at a Circumneutral pH. Environmental Science & Technology, 55, 9854-9863.

The Grantee

Dr Niloofar Karimian is Post-doctoral Research Fellow at CSIRO (mineral resources) and Monash university in Melbourne. She is an environmental geochemist, interested in applied and fundamental aspects of environmental geochemistry and mineralogy. Her research explores the multi-disciplinary links between mineralogy, geochemistry, and microbiology in controlling environmental mobility and speciation of a wide range of toxic metalloids, such as antimony, arsenic, and chromium, in soil-water systems. She is interested to explore how mineral formation and evolution over time affect the environmental behavior association and bioaccessibility of impurities and contaminants in the geo-environment using a wide range of advanced analytical techniques including state of art spectroscopy techniques such as synchrotron-based X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (XAS). In her current role at CSIRO, she is carrying out innovative research to resolve the invisible phosphorus puzzle in iron ore which is a critical step in unlocking the economic potential and reducing the carbon intensity of iron ore processing.

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