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DOE's Black Box for Finding Pollution
23 January 2002 (All day)
The Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management bypassed the peer-review process and spent more than $400,000 field-testing a pollution-detection device that relies on the ability of a human operator to sense changes in magnetic fields.
The Passive Magnetic Resonance Anomaly Mapping (PMRAM) system was developed by the environmental management company Pollution Prevention Associates (P2A) of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and the environmental mapping and assessment company Geoecolog Co. in Kiev, Ukraine. The system claims to harness the world's only qualified operator of the PMRAM system--a resident of the Ukraine--to a lunch-pail-sized black-colored box with a silver front panel packed with wires and electronic technology. According to the final report prepared by P2A, the operator walks about the field, comparing the magnetic resonance of a pure sample of contaminants contained in the box with magnetic resonances he senses at the site. When levels of the field resonances cancel out those in the scanning device, he records the location of contaminants such as the element technetium or uranium oxide. An audit prepared by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of the Inspector General states, "The technology is unique in that it combines an electronic system and a human operator into a single bio-sensory unit."
DOE's Office of Environmental Management (EM) footed the bill for three field tests of the method in Ohio and Tennessee before the EM's Office of Science and Technology (OST)--in charge of peer reviewing untested clean-up methods--got wind of the method when EM requested funds for further tests. OST requested that the Association of Mechanical Engineers peer review the process. The association concluded that PMRAM seemed scientifically implausible, provided no useful information during the three field demonstrations, and appeared inadequate as a site-characterization tool.
Gerald Boyd, deputy assistant secretary for OST, says that EM often performs field tests of off-the-shelf technology but that in most cases, the product has already undergone substantive testing and peer review elsewhere. It's unusual for the department to field-test such an "immature" technology, he says. "This is an anomaly," he says.
Charles Downs, P2A's founder, says that the field tests were plagued with inadequate calibrations and a lack of pure contaminant samples. But the method seems to be working great for oil and gas, he says.