NSF Grant to Aid Uintah Basin Spin-Out in Commercializing Mercury Instrument

It’s no surprise that mercury, a neurotoxin, can have adverse effects on human health, and a Utah State University researcher is leading a new commercialization that will improve tracking and evaluation of atmospheric mercury measurements.


Scientists at research institutions and government agencies around the world are currently measuring atmospheric mercury. They do this because mercury pollution is a threat to human health and ecosystems. Humans and wildlife are exposed to toxic levels of mercury primarily by eating mercury-contaminated fish. Most mercury pollution is emitted into the atmosphere and then deposited back into aquatic ecosystems  There it undergoes a chemical transformation into methylmercury, a more toxic form of mercury, which then accumulates in fish.

Measurements of atmospheric mercury, and in particular gas-phase oxidized mercury compounds, have been used in development of regulations by EPA and in the development of global treaties regarding mercury use. There are several different mercury compounds that exist in the atmosphere and there are various ways to measure them. However, measuring the oxidized mercury compounds has proven to be a difficult task.

Seth Lyman, a Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) investigator and director of the Utah State University (USU) Bingham Entrepreneurship and Energy Research Center (BEERC), is commercializing an automated mercury calibration device that will assist people who measure oxidized mercury compounds and help them to understand how mercury moves through the environment. The instrument will provide more accurate compound measurements that will allow regulators and policymakers to understand the measurements when developing regulations or policies to limit mercury use or emissions.

The BEERC has been approved for a $50,000 Innovation Corps (I-Corps) grant provided by the National Science Foundation. The grant will provide training and expertise in innovation, customer development, and business start-ups that are directly related to the mercury calibrator technology. Christian Volmar, associate vice president for Commercial Enterprises at USU explained that the grant will help transition the research being done in the lab into real world applications.

“I-Corps team grants are unique because they provide funding for prototype development and other commercialization costs that help bridge the typical funding gap between research and commercialization,” said Volmar. “Being awarded an I-Corps team grant also proves the quality of research we have going on in the Uintah Basin, and helps provide a model for continuing USTAR commercialization efforts at our regional campus locations.”

The calibrator uses a permeation tube, which is a permeable membrane that contains oxidized mercury compounds like mercury bromide or mercury oxide. The permeation tubes release oxidized mercury compounds into a sample gas stream that is analyzed by oxidized mercury measurement instruments. Known amounts of the desired compound are then added to the instrument, which establishes a baseline to compare samples with.

“Virtually all current atmospheric mercury measurements are uncalibrated, however, and evidence is mounting that oxidized mercury measurements are biased, at least in some atmospheric conditions,” said Lyman. “Development of an automated calibrator for oxidized mercury compounds will allow users to, for the first time, understand the uncertainty inherent in their measurements.”

The system is designed for atmospheric mercury, but is applicable to calibration of other trace-level reactive atmospheric gasses, including nitric acid.

The next step for Lyman and the BEERC is building and testing a prototype. Lyman said the BEERC will use the experience gained with the I-Corps program to ensure that the prototype fits customer needs. Beta testing of the prototype is geared to take place at a field site in Nevada by the end of the year.

The fact that the product development and commercialization of this instrument is taking place in the Uintah Basin region is of utmost importance to Lyman and USU. The BEERC brings together USU scientists and researchers to create novel best practices in the realms of education, resource development, economic growth and environmental stewardship.

“It is particularly important to us and to USU that this product development and commercialization effort is taking place in the Uintah Basin,” said Lyman. “Our goal is to create a business that is based in the Basin and helps diversify the Basin’s economy.”