CMU professor honored for work purifying water


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Scientist Terrence Collins has spent most of his career finding ways to detoxify hazardous compounds in the environment, primarily by purifying water of any residual drugs, pesticides and bacterial pollutants.

Dr. Collins pioneered the field of green chemistry, designing and teaching the nation's first course in the subject in the early 1990s at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is now the Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry and leads the Institute for Green Science.

On Monday he learned of another distinction. He has been named a recipient of a 2010 Heinz Award.

The awards are given annually by the Heinz Family Foundation to recognize those who have made extraordinary contributions in their fields. Dr. Collins and nine others were chosen by this year's jurors for their "outstanding response to global environmental challenges."

Each honoree will receive $100,000 for unrestricted use.

What Dr. Collins does is "a miracle," Ms. Heinz said, noting that after Hurricane Katrina, the Heinz Endowments sent him and a green chemistry team to New Orleans to work on cleaning up the water.

"For Pittsburgh to have a person of that caliber is a great thing," she said. "He's a Pied Piper. He imbues students with a sense of the possibility of a better place."

A native of New Zealand who has lived in the United States for 32 years, Dr. Collins came to CMU in 1989. In addition to working on reducing the impact of toxic chemicals in the environment, he continues developing course materials for those classes, and teaching them as well.

"Everyday chemicals we once thought were safe now appear to disrupt cellular development in ways that can impair living things, including humans," Dr. Collins said. "I consider finding answers to the challenge of these so-called endocrine-disrupting compounds as the highest-order goal of green chemistry."

For example, he said: "We take pharmaceuticals. Our bodies excrete them, they go through the waste system to the treatment plants, into the rivers and back into our drinking water. Some are very persistent, so we need better ways to break them down."

To neutralize these effects, Dr. Collins developed TAML activators, which are catalysts that activate hydrogen peroxide to oxidize molecular pollutants and hardy pathogens in water, turning them into nontoxic compounds.

He has tailored his invention to target a wide variety of pollutants and continues working with his partners at a CMU startup company, GreenOx Catalysts Inc., to commercialize the catalysts for widespread use, including large laundry operations and soil and water cleanup of industrial sites.

"The Heinz Award is the most wonderful acknowledgement of my work in developing ways to purify water that I can imagine," Dr. Collins said.

He is the third Pittsburgher to receive the prize in its 16-year history, after pioneering lead researcher Herbert Needleman in 1995 and civil rights leader Dorothy Height, who hailed from Rankin and was awarded the Chairman's Medal in 2001.

The other Heinz Award honorees are:

• James Balog, for photographically documenting the devastation of global warming

• Gretchen Daily, for demonstrating the financial value of natural ecosystems

• Richard Feely, for identifying ocean acidity as global warming's "evil twin"

• Cary Fowler, for establishing the Global Seed Vault to conserve the world's food plants despite climate change

• Lynn Goldman, for promoting regulation and the public's right to know about pollution in their communities

• Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker, for her environmental journalism

• Michael Oppenheimer, for assessing the impacts of global warming and air pollution, and working to prevent future harm

• Daniel Sperling, for advancing sustainable transportation policies and the change to low-carbon fuels; and

• Frederick von Saal, for uncovering health problems linked to the chemical BPA.

The Heinz Awards will be presented at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15.


Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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