Bin Gao was trained as a chemist before taking up agricultural engineering. Accordingly, he brings a strong basic research emphasis to his work, and relies on methods of the physical sciences in his work. Gao pursues two areas. In the first, he studies the environmental fate and transport of colloidal and nano-sized particles, particularly in water. Those particles have unique properties compared to more familiar materials, and Gao wants to know what happens when they are released in the environment. Specifically, he wants to know how they move in hydrological paths, what happens to them chemically, and where they might accumulate. His second area of interest involves a material called biochar. One form of biochar is very familiar; it is made from wood, and it is called charcoal. But biochar can be made from many other carbon-rich substances, and each one may have specific environmental applications.
The particles that Gao studies are in the nanometer size range. It's hard to imagine, but a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. For comparison, a human hair is around 50,000 nanometers thick, so 500 to over a thousand of Gao's colloidal/nano-sized particles could fit in the width of a human hair. A familiar colloidal substance is milk, which consists primarily of water with tiny fat particles floating in it.
Colloids and nanoparticles have many interesting properties, but at this stage of his research, Gao's main interest is how they move through the environment. If this seems like a very abstract interest, it is actually a very practical one. There are many colloidal and nano-sized materials moving through the environment, whether through surface waters, soil, sand, etc. This is an interesting research problem by itself, but the mobility of colloids and nanoparticles makes it possible for them to carry a lot of other chemicals that adhere to them.
Materials, like pesticides, that might not be easily carried by water itself can hitch a ride on the colloids and nanoparticles. This is the main way that certain kinds of toxic chemicals move through the environment, and they can be carried from an agricultural field to a water supply or become part of the food chain. When the environment changes, the materials stuck to the particle's surface may be released and concentrate in a particular area. So one of the first things researchers must understand is how the colloidal and nano-sized particles move through various physical and chemical environments.
Gao's other research emphasis is biochar. For many people, this will be a new term, but it simply refers to the charcoal-like material that can be made from any carbon-rich biomass. Biochar is made when biomass is heated in the absence of or limited amount of air. At the correct temperature, the plant material carbonizes. Gases and oils are also released that can be used in the production of synthetic fuels. The properties of the biochar depend on the kind of biomass from which it is made and the conditions under which it is made. Gao would like to understand the relationship between biochar's properties and its source and method of preparation.
Biochar has a very complex structure when viewed under a microscope. It could be compared to a sponge because it has many openings and cavities which give biochar its special absorptive abilities. For example, activated charcoal is often used to filter air or water, because its high surface area and complex structure allow it to retain molecules.
The potential for biochar is great. For example, Gao states that the biochar made from bagasse, the material left after syrup has been extracted from sugarcane, has a special, high affinity for lead, and it could be very useful in removing lead from water supplies or other contaminated waters. Biochar's high surface activity makes it a very useful addition to soil, where it can increase the soil's capacity to retain and then slowly release nutrients and moisture.
Biochar can help agriculture and forestry operations have a more positive impact on the environment. Biochar creates a potential use for material left after the useful parts of plants are harvested or extracted, and there is a great deal of this material. Wood chips from lumber manufacture, bagasse from sugarcane harvesting, and tailings from sugar beet processing are all examples of plentiful materials that could be used.
Another positive aspect of biochar is that it traps the carbon from plant material in a stable form that will not be quickly returned to the atmosphere, and therefore, greenhouse gases are reduced. When plant materials are allowed to decay or are burned, much of their carbon is converted to carbon dixoide, which returns to the atmosphere and increases the amount of heat that the atmosphere can trap. This is the greenhouse gas effect that can contribute to global climate change.
Dr. Gao specializes in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering, Contaminant Fate and Transport, and Surface and Groundwater Hydrology
- ABE6266 Nanotech Water Research
Research and Extension
- Fate and transport of colloids, nanoparticles, and other emerging contaminants
- Biochar technology for waste and water reclamation
- Physical, chemical, and biological processes related to flow and transport in porous media
- Multi-scale hydrological modeling
- Ph.D Environmental Engineering, Cornell University, NY
- M.S. Environmental Chemistry, Nanjing University, China
- B.S.Chemistry, Nanjing University, China
Associate Professor University of Florida, UF Agricultural & Biological Engineering Department
Assistant Professor, UF Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department
Research Associate, Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University
Postdoctoral Research Associate, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University
Awards and Honors
- University of Florida Research Foundation Professorship Award 2015
- Giglia Endowment Award for Innovative Agriculture 2012
- ASABE Florida Section Outstanding Young Researcher Award, 2012
- NSF Career Award, 2011
Other Professional Activities
- Member, Alpha Epsilon Honor Society