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Pollution transformed from health concern to art piece

John Sabraw extracts the pigments for his paints from toxic coal runoff. (From John Sabraw)
Creating art with heavy metals
Paintings by John Sabraw

It’s hard to think of coal runoff as anything but toxic. Filled with iron ore and other heavy metals, the sludge acidifies waterways, kills fish and aquatic plants, and, if ingested, can be dangerous or fatal for humans. But where most people see destruction and sickness, one man sees art.

Artist John Sabraw partnered with Ohio University engineer Guy Riefler to extract the toxic heavy metals — which turn water into putrid shades of orange — and transform them into paint.

Sabraw and Riefler told Smithsonian Magazine that they collect runoff from Ohio’s network of coal mines underground before it comes into contact with air.

Oxidation, they said, is what creates the orange color we’re all familiar with. By controlling the rate of oxidation, they have been able to generate a sludgy rainbow of color, ranging from yellows and oranges to reds, chocolates and even black.

Sabraw uses these pigments in his abstract paintings that evoke images of trees and streams. (The paintings can be seen at He and Riefler want to produce the paints for commercial use, with proceeds going to cleaning up Ohio’s waterways.

“What we are doing is trying to make the streams viable. We want life back in the streams,” Sabraw told the magazine. “It is certainly possible, and what we are doing is enabling that to happen.”

Lego creates a female scientist figure
Minifigure Series 11

Lego’s minifigure series, introduced in 2010, features characters in a wide range of fields — from motorcycle mechanic and butcher to pop star and race car driver. Though the collectibles, referred to by their fans as “minifigs,” include professionals in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), women haven’t been well represented. There’s a computer programmer, a surgeon and an explorer — but these characters are male. (The nurse and the zookeeper are women.) Some critics have decried a Lego gender gap.

But last week, Lego introduced its fans — and fans of the STEM fields — to Scientist.

Scientist, whose name is Professor C. Bodin, according to her ID, sports a white lab coat and sleek bob, and carries two tiny Erlenmeyer flasks.

Though she is just a toy, her release was significant, Maia Weinstock wrote on Scientific American’s blog.

“She is the first female lab scientist in Lego minifig form, although her specialty is deliberately vague,” wrote Weinstock, noting that while the figurine looks like a chemist, her official bio indicates that she could be a biologist, biophysicist, materials engineer, theoretical physicist or roboticist.

Among the scientist’s accomplishments is developing “a method for swapping body parts at will,” according to her bio.

“Let us hope that this is only the beginning,” Weinstock wrote.



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