Geoscientist solves living mystery, works to help environment

Michael F. Hochella Jr., Virginia Tech alumnus and University Distinguished Professor of Geosciences in the College of Science, is working to change the way we look at environmental contamination, our drinking water, and our imprint on the environment.

A pioneer in the emerging field of nano-bio-geochemistry, which is believed to be a critical part of studies of the global environment, Hochella was the first in his field to use atomic-force, scanning-tunneling microscopes, and high-resolution transmission electron microscopes to study surface properties at the atomic level.


Michael Hochella with microscope Michael Hochella conducts research with the "FEI Titan" scanning/transmission electron microscope with image and spectroscopic capabilities.

As a Fulbright Senior Scholar, Hochella studied acid-mine drainage in Germany. He and a colleague gained a detailed understanding of the way toxic metals can be transported long distances from mining sites, with nanoparticles which are only a few tens of atoms across. It was the first time this had been done.

Hochella, who was later named a Humboldt Research Fellow, continued work to develop better models of metal transport and the project expanded to include the United States. “Acid-mine drainage is an environmental problem of vast proportion,” Hochella said.

In summer 2007, people worldwide joined the geochemist on one of his trips to Montana’s Clark Fork River as he chronicled his work with a tape recorder.

The tapes were converted into nine radio segments for Pulse of the Planet’s Science Diaries, which was made possible in part by support from the National Science Foundation.


Michael Hochella in the lab. Hochella and his students view minerals at an atomic level--five nanometers (a human hair is 80,000 nanometers wide). They discovered that nanoparticles of common minerals that are basically the size of large molecules can carry traces of heavy metals.

The toxic metal location, distribution, and transport in the river, the largest Environmental Protection Agency Super Fund clean-up site in the United States, have been Hochella’s research for many years.

Hochella’s research here solved a living mystery. He and colleague Johnnie Moore of the University of Montana — using the latest in scientific equipment, a new and special transmission electron microscope — have discovered how the heavy metals copper, zinc, lead, and arsenic have traveled hundreds of miles from the 600-square-mile Butte, Anaconda mining area.

Meanwhile, humans are changing the natural nanoparticle distribution with no idea of the consequences. For instance, attempted cleanups in places such as this can mobilize contamination release downstream or within a contamination plume through nanoparticle transport. And, because contaminants are bound to nanoparticles, stability and interaction of contaminants are different than what was once predicted.

“Historically, we have not even known the nanoparticles [that are transporting the toxic heavy metals] were there,” says Hochella.

He asks: “Are the metals less toxic if they are associated with nanoparticles than if dissolved as atoms in water? If a person, animal, fish, or insect ingests this water, will lead pass harmlessly through if it is associated with a nanoparticle?”


Hochella collects samples of water while wading in a stream. Hochella and his team waded in snow-melt streams to collect their samples to bring back to the lab for analysis.

Scientists worldwide are following Hochella’s lead in studying the role these incredibly small particles play, for example, in triggering asthma attacks, allergic reactions, and in transporting infectious diseases and fungus worldwide.

The knowledge that earth scientists like Hochella gain about how this planet functions from a fundamental point of view helps society understand how the impact of humans may affect the planet in the future.

To date, Hochella’s sponsored research programs total $12 million. He has written more than 120 scientific papers in professional journals and books, and his published work has had more than 3,000 citations. He is also one of the three founding editors of Elements, a major international magazine in the fields of mineralogy, petrology, and geochemistry.

In addition to his research, Hochella is a teacher. He has been a leader in introducing nanoscience and nanotechnology into the curricula of Virginia high schools. He is a prolific author and editor, and he has advised more than 20 graduate and post-doctoral students, many of whom have become preeminent scientists in their own right.

The highly sought after international speaker, has also given nanoscience and technology briefings to groups including United States Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.

Hochella is the recipient of the Geochemical Society’s Distinguished Service Medal, the Virginia Scientist of the Year Award, and the Virginia Tech Alumni Award for Research Excellence. He has been named Fellow in the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Hochella received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Virginia Tech and his doctorate from Stanford University.

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NanoBioEarth research group

The group, under direction of Hochella, conducts research in the field of nanoscience applied to

  • environmental geochemistry,
  • biogeochemistry, and
  • mineralogy.

The group's research projects all have important environmental consequences.

They include

  • toxic metal mobility and bioavailability,
  • acid-mine drainage, and
  • mineral property changes as a function of size.

Learn more about NanoBioEarth research.

Essential equipment


The transmission electron microscope The transmission electron microscope allows Hochella and fellow researchers to image nanoparticles, mineral surfaces, and bacterial cells--all of which are essential to their work.

Geosciences research at Virginia Tech

Geosciences faculty at Virginia Tech lead research programs in the forefront areas of geosciences.

  • Earth surface
  • Processes
  • Geobiology
  • Geochemistry
  • Geophysics
  • Hydrogeology
  • Mineralogy and petrology
  • Tectonics

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