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Dr Niloofar Karimian on the effects of antimony


Media and content team
19 January 2022

We’ve all heard of arsenic, but what about its chemical cousin, antimony? It’s a huge part of our day to day lives, from electronics, to plastics and even clothing. But it’s also a contaminant of concern, according to Southern Cross University environmental geochemist Dr Niloofar Karimian, as it’s both carcinogenic and toxic, polluting natural environments as a result of mining and industrial activities.

“Antimony comes from the Greek word antimonos, which means 'against loneliness'. It’s a poetic reference, but it reflects the fact that antimony is usually found in compound form and rarely in its metallic state. We don’t know that much about how it behaves in the environment but we need to understand more, as it is present in so many products from every aspect of our lives,” she says.

Niloofar’s research is at the cutting edge of innovation in applied and fundamental aspects of environmental geochemistry and mineralogy. Based at the University’s geoscience headquarters in Lismore, she’s investigating how climate-driven mineral formation and transformations affect the mobility and bioavailability of a range of toxic trace metals and metalloids including arsenic, antimony, and chromium.

We chat to her about her research and how it’s taken her from the ancient capital of Estafahan in Iran, to the Northern Rivers of Australia.

Antimony is a very important mineral commodity and it has a lot of important uses in our everyday life for example in the plastics in the fire retardants in you know electric devices and everything nowadays and for our transition to clean energy and at the same time this is a contaminant of concern globally because it is carcinogenic and toxic at the same time and it can be released to the environment because of different processes and it can affect human beings and biota.

My name is Niloofar Karimian I'm a post doctoral research fellow working at Southern Cross Geoscience Faculty of Science and Engineering and I'm an environmental geochemist.

So what I try to do with my research is I try to understand the geochemical behaviour and the environmental destiny of antimony in our soil and water systems but not everyone is like aware of the importance of antimony and the release of antimony to the environment is quite important specifically Australia because of the mining activities we have a like extensive release of antimony to the like the largest stretch of about 300 kilometres of the macular river system and a lot of contamination for antimony is reported there so it is a very important issue for us.

What I try to do is to understand the interactions between antimony and different minerals. Nowadays my specific focus is on manganese minerals which actually are proven to be potent scavengers for arsenic and antimony both of them and I really try to understand what is the interactions between these two very important surfaces and how we can possibly use manganese minerals as a potent scavenger for antimony in the environment and then we can design some sort of like economic and at the same time environmental friendly techniques to get rid of antimony in our water systems.

I came from Iran and I finished my master degree in Iran and I did a soil science engineering course in Iran and Southern Cross Geoscience have a really, really good reputation internationally and the researchers here are really very recognised.

My mum is a chemist and it came from like I don't know the genetics I would say. So yes I love chemistry from the beginning but then I wanted to get some in-depth understanding and the mechanisms in a really, really small level like a molecular level. And environmental geochemistry is actually the best thing that I can think about it and the most interesting research. So yeah, I'm very happy to be in that field as a female scientist.

What is your research focus?
My research focuses on how mineral formation and evolution over time affects the geochemical behaviour of trace metals and metalloids in the geo-environment, using a wide range of advanced analytical techniques including X-ray absorption spectroscopy.

My discoveries have application in managing contaminant transport through landscapes and in the remediation of soil and sediments with low-cost technologies. I am passionate about exploring the complex interactions between mineralogy, microbiology, and trace metalloid geochemistry using advanced analytical techniques to manage and remediate environmental contamination.

What do you find most interesting about this topic?
Both arsenic and antimony are particularly problematic in the context of metal mining activities. As such, severe environmental antimony and arsenic contamination has been widely observed as a result of gold, copper, silver, and zinc mining activities. Given the vital role of the mining industry in the Australian economy and in the prosperity of many regional communities (with more than 1,000 operating and 50,000 derelict mines in the country), the remediation of contaminated sites in eco-friendly and cost-effective manners is central to treating existing contamination as well as managing pollution from future activities.

What led you to Southern Cross University in Lismore?
I finished my Master of Science in soil science chemistry back in Iran. The project that I undertook during my masters degree inspired me to further my education in the field of environmental geochemistry and mineralogy. So, I started to look for a PhD opportunity in this field.  Southern Cross GeoScience has a very good reputation and is very well known amongst international scientists in the field of geochemistry and mineralogy and it was exactly what I was looking for. In 2013 I found an advertisement for a PhD student to work on acid sulphate soils under the supervision of Professor Scott Johnston and Professor Edward Burton, so I applied for the position and that led me to where I am today.

What are some of your highlights of studying and working in Australia and at Southern Cross University?
I found studying and working at Southern Cross a really joyful and rewarding experience. It’s an ideal institution with a relaxing and very friendly atmosphere that provided the best research mentoring to support me as a PhD student and now as a postdoctoral researcher. Southern Cross University is also home to an energetic and supportive cohort of early-and mid-career researchers, as well as other more senior academics with specialist skills across the geochemistry and environmental science fields. The quality of the University’s geochemistry research is outstanding, well above world standard. I also have access to the best research facilities to support my research, including state-of-the-art analytical instrumentation such as analytical electron microscope facilities, XRD facilities, Mossbauer spectroscopy and ion chromatography inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy (IC-ICP-MS) for trace metal speciation studies.

What are some of your career highlights as a researcher?
I was awarded the Southern Cross University Chancellor’s Medal for the outstanding PhD thesis in 2017, which was recommended by examiners as an exemplar for other PhD students in the geochemistry field.

In my relatively short career as a postdoctoral research fellow, I have published 22 peer-reviewed journal articles. I am the first (and corresponding) author of 11 of these publications.  I currently have another four journal manuscripts that are under review.

Where to next?
As an early career researcher, I know the importance of securing grants. So, my focus is on applying for some competitive grants such as DECRA to initiate and manage large research projects. This will help me to train PhD and Master students and to build new national and international collaborations with world-leading researchers.