Israel Environment Bulletin Summer 1997-5758, Vol. 20, No. 3


Israel’s competitive strength in technological development is largely due to its large and fruitful research and development community. Even before the recent wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, which added an estimated 50,000 engineers and 5,000 research scientists to Israel’s workforce, the country had the highest proportion in the world of scientists and engineers within the working population and of published scientific papers and patents. Over 80% of all civilian basic research is conducted within the framework of Israel’s universities.

Concomitant with their scientific research activities, the universities play an important and innovative role in Israel’s technological advancement as well. The establishment of science-based industrial parks adjacent to university campuses has been pioneered with great commercial success. Universities have also set up ‘spin-off’ industrial firms for the commercialization of specific products based on their research, often in partnership with local and foreign concerns.

The general improvement in economic conditions in Israel has also been important for commercialization of environmental research and development projects. For example, two separate technologies developed for removing toxic heavy metals from industrial wastewater, one at the Hebrew University’s agriculture faculty (using the water fern azolla) and the other at the Technion in Haifa (using yeast from the beer industry are being commercialized by Israeli groups. The same is true for a technique originally developed at Tel Aviv University for cleaning up oil slicks using bacteria. Similarly, a technique developed more than ten years ago at the Hebrew University for holding chemical and biochemical markers in a porous glass matrix is now being commercialized in several different sub-markets including the production of miniature pollution monitors for a wide range of air and water pollutants.

Environmental projects, programs and research abound in all institutions of higher learning in this country. The following presentation of some of the research directions currently being undertaken in Israel’s major universities is by no means comprehensive. It strives, rather, to provide a small glimpse into the ever-expanding world of environmental research in Israel.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

While the Hebrew University of Jerusalem inaugurated the country’s first graduate program in environmental studies in 1972, environmental research at this prestigious institute of learning spans back several decades. In fact, field studies carried out by Hebrew University scientists as early as the 1930s proved significant in the recent decision to reflood and rehabilitate the Hula Valley in the eastern Galilee. Based on investigations of the flora, fauna and hydrobiology of Hula area which were carried out both before and after the drainage of Lake Hula and its swamps, three scientists from the Department of Evolution, Systematics and Ecology in the Institute of Life Sciences prepared a document entitled "Lake Hula: Reconstruction of the Fauna and the Hydrobiology of a Lost Lake." Their recommendationthat part of the area drained in the 1950s undergo environmental restorationcoincided with the opinions of numerous economists, hydrologists and other experts. Today, Hebrew University scientists, along with investigators from other institutions in Israel, are continuing to carefully monitor the restoration of the old-new ecosystem following partial reflooding of the area in 1994.

Water pollution control, management and treatment are high priority subjects at the Hebrew University. Almost since its opening in 1925, the university has conducted research on expanding the country’s water supplies and developing methods to use them more efficiently and economically. The Division of Environmental Sciences at the Graduate School of Applied Science has initiated numerous investigations designed to ensure that the country’s precious sources of drinking watersprings all over the country as well as the waters of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee)are not subject to pollution and that the quality of the water pumped from Lake Kinneret into the National Water Carrier remains satisfactory.

Current research is investigating the development of new and more economical filtration materials. In one set of studies, a filtration bed made of volcanic turf and basalt from the Golan Heights has been shown to cost less than one-tenth the price of a traditional bed. In another, sand-only filtration has been shown to be an even cheaper method than local volcanic materials. Yet another innovative technique, based on "slow granular filtration," allows the water to penetrate the filter using the force of gravity alone. This allows a "biological layer" of bacteria and other microorganisms capable of metabolizing suspended organic particles to be formed on the upper surface of the filter bed so that the water emerging from the lower part of the filtration bed is free of solid matter.

One of the main sources of water pollution in Israel is the infiltration of seawater into the coastal plain aquifer and the high level of chlorides and nitrates in Lake Kinneret. High chloride levels render much of Israel’s water unsuitable for certain types of irrigation, while high nitrate levels create a potential health hazards in drinking water. At the Institute of Earth Sciences, a major research project is focusing on elucidating the causes and mechanisms for this pollution of water resources, while other projects are probing the rehabilitation of polluted groundwater reserves. Simultaneously, researchers in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the Faculty of Agriculture are examining the economic and agricultural implications, including effects on profitability and optimum mixes of high-quality and high-chloride water.

In order to combat fuel contamination, researchers at the Faculty of Medicine have developed a unique solution to oil slicks, which can also be applied to other fields where oil and water need to be separated. The technique relies on the use of liposomes, which resemble miniature doughnuts with a type of organic material known as phospholipid making up the dough. Phospholipids, of which the soybean product lecithin is one of the best examples, have molecules that are hydrophilic (attracted to water) at one end, and lipophilic (attracted to oil) at the other. This means that they can reduce the surface tension between oil and water by a factor of about 50,000. This prevents the oil from automatically spreading in a thin layer on the surface of the waterbreaking it up into small droplets which will stick readily to solid surfaces instead. An added advantage of phospholipid technique is that it can be used to enhance the method of using bacteria to digest oil. By introducing phospholipidswhich contain both phosphorous and nitrogenthe oil becomes more susceptible to attack by the bacteria.

Along with water research, agricultural research is of special importance at the Hebrew University. Since its founding in 1942, the Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Quality Sciences has blossomed from a small experimental station and training institute with 21 students into a major learning and research center of international renown boasting over 2200 students. Faculty research projects include: biological control of pests and diseases; soil solarization to disinfect the soil by using the sun’s rays instead of methyl bromide; slow-release nitrogens as fertilizers to avoid groundwater contamination; crops that can be grown on brackish water; and recycling technologies for both liquid and solid wastes.

At the Seagram Center for Soil and Water Sciences at the Faculty of Agriculture, researchers have been investigating the effects of heavy metal ionsoriginating from industrial effluentsin recycled wastewater used for irrigation. Other scientists have been hard at work finding means of reducing heavy metal levels in industrial effluents. An especially exciting development has centered on refining the remarkable ability of the azolla water fern to absorb heavy metals such as chromium, nickel, cadmium and even uranium. The azolla can be grown on wastewater ponds with heavy metal solutes as a means of removing the metals before the water is returned to the National Water Carrier and used for agriculture. Alternatively, the fern can be dried and adapted for use in filters attached to the waste outlets of industrial plants as envisioned by Professor Elisha Tel-Or of the Department of Agricultural Botany. Side by side with its water and agricultural research, Hebrew University scientists are researching other aspects of environmental quality as wellwhether in the atmosphere, the sea or the workplace. Thus, for example, "on spot" air quality investigations are conducted by airborne and mobile laboratories equipped with analysis systems that measure atmospheric transport and pollution processes. Other air quality studies deploy satellites and laser radar or use a state-of-the-art atmospheric spectograph which can detect extremely small concentrations of compounds in the atmosphere.

The university’s famous Marine Biology Laboratory in Eilat, founded in 1968 and transformed into the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in 1985 has been the site of multi-faceted research involving not only Israeli scientists but colleagues from neighboring Arab countries. Since 1984, Hebrew University scientists along with their colleagues have studied the fish communities at undisturbed sites near the sandy shore along the Israeli-Jordanian border and at an ecologically damaged site near a sewage effluent 250 meters away. Although the nutrient availability at the effluent site had produced large amounts of fish, there was low species diversity. Conversely, several important species from the unspoiled site were absent entirely at the polluted one. This along with other research confirmed fears that increased human activity and pollution are damaging the Gulf of Aqaba’s unique highly diverse ecosystem. The concerned scientists issued an International Eilat Declaration calling for the drafting of a multinational convention to protect and save the Gulf.

The Unit of Occupational and Environmental Medicine of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical School is another fine example of the kind of research being carried out in the field of chemical and worker safety. This Unit carries out teaching, research and service on the detection and prevention of major toxic and environmental hazards in the workplace and community. These include detection of low level exposures and effects from organophosphate-containing pesticides, work in nickel-cadmium batteries, asbestos, lead in the workplace and community, ionizing and non-ionizing radiation (including radon), solvent exposures of laboratory research workers, and nitrosamines. Projects on the recognition and use of sentinel markers for prevention of chemical disasters, worker’s right to know and right to act ("empowerment"), risk assessment of exposures to carcinogens and its application to cancer prevention strategies and policy are also underway.

Weizmann Institute of Science

The Weizmann Institute of Science, established in Rehovot in 1934, is a world renowned post-graduate center of research in the sciences. Its researchers are engaged in projects designed to accelerate the development of industry and the establishment of new science-based enterprises. Weizmann Institute scientists are dedicated to the theory that by better understanding the processes responsible for environmental deterioration, strategies can be devised for halting or even reversing damage to our planet.

Spearheading the Institute’s environmental research is the Department of Environmental Sciences and Energy Research, but scientists in nearly all departments are actively involved in studies which span such fields as water, plant life and environmental hazards, the global environment, environmental education and policy, and energy.

Weizmann Institute researchers are actively involved in developing new methods for monitoring current levels of water and soil pollution, clarifying processes involved in groundwater contamination, and forecasting future threats. One project is based on a unique early warning system for monitoring groundwater pollution. The system, known as multi-layer sampler (MLS) makes it possible to obtain multiple water samples from various levels of an aquifer. Researchers are introducing MLS containers with mineral samples into different aquifers in order to clarify the interaction between minerals and heavy metals in naturein particular, whether certain minerals in the groundwater act as collectors of heavy metals. They have already discovered, for example, that the heavy metal chromium has a tendency to attach itself to silica. Using the MLS system, scientists are also studying the delicate equilibrium at the interface of salt and fresh water in an aquifer. The goal is to create accurate models predicting the movement of sea water in coastal aquifers in order to ensure their safe exploitation.

In another study, scientists are conducting research designed to improve the management of industrial waste disposal sites using Ramat Hovav, Israel’s central hazardous waste disposal site, as their model. This research can later be used to avoid groundwater contamination in the future and to select new sites suitable for toxic waste disposal. It is also expected to help in the management of existing disposal sites and in the selection of appropriate measures for cleaning up polluted areas.

Several Institute scientists are developing methods for removing toxic metals from water, whether by means of a filtration technique utilizing special powders which absorb metal ions dissolved in water or by synthesis of tailor-made molecules that bind to particular metal ions, which have already been effective in removing lead, mercury and cadmium from water. Prof. Ora Kedem of the Department of Membrane Research and Biophysics has developed a special membrane that promises to make electrodialysis a more viable way of purifying nitrate-contaminated water. Today, the ion-exchange method for water softening leads to the dumping of tons of sodium-rich effluent into the ground. Using the new approach, an alkaline solution is added to hard water and the super-saturated water is passed through a filter cake. The precipitation of calcium takes seconds and leaves behind easily disposable crystals, thus allowing for water softening without subsequent groundwater pollution. Pilot installations based on this method are already operational in Israel and abroad.

The Weizmann Institute’s advances in exploring and developing alternative, clean energy sources are world renowned. The Institute has set up two state-of-the-art solar research facilities which are used to achieve very high concentrations of sunlight. The Institute’s Schaefer Solar Furnace can provide 15 kilowatts of solar radiation at concentrations of more than 10,000 times the intensity of the sun. This is accomplished by means of a 100-square-meter mirror that reflects the sunlight onto a concentrating dish seven meters in diameter, which, in turn, focuses the energy into a circle with a diameter of about 10 centimeters.

A larger 3000 kilowatt facilitythe Canadian Institute for the Energies and Applied Researchenables technologies to be tried on a larger scale. The facility consists of a field of 64 large computer-controlled mirrors, each measuring seven by eight meters, which track the sun and concentrate its energy onto a 54-meter-high receiving tower. The mirrors follow the sun’s movements by means of a computer that calculates the sun’s position

(relative to the earth) for every second of the year. The energy collected by the field of mirrors can be directed to five separate experimental stations located at various heights within the tower. The facility is not limited to studying the production of electricity but is directed toward the exploration, development and testing of various ways of exploiting solar energy on a large scale. One project involves using solar heat to convert methane gas plus CO2 or water into "syngas," an energetic mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This can be transported and recombined when and where needed. When run at 900(C, the synthesis/recombination process is 80% efficient.

Weizmann scientists are also seeking improved methods for operating existing photovoltaics and developing materials for new types of solar cells. One method of increasing the efficiency of solar cells is charging them by means of concentrated sunlight. Using such light to operate commercial silicon cells, Weizmann scientists have been able to sharply reduce the amount of silicon required, consequently bringing down the cost of the system. Scientists are now seeking to increase the efficiency of photovoltaics even further by utilizing the part of the solar spectrum that is best suited for operating these cells.

Additional research projects carried out at the Weizmann Institute relate to preventing water and soil pollutionwhether through the reduction of herbicide use, or introduction of biological control agents or the control of environmentally damaging weeds. Thus, for example, a large regional project sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development and coordinated in Israel by Prof. Jonathan Gressel of the Department of Plant Genetics, is aimed at controlling broomrapes, parasitic weeds that attach to the roots of vegetables and sunflower crops in Mediterranean countries and significantly increase the amount of fertilizers, insecticides and other chemicals used by farmers.

Scientists are also involved in various research projects aimed at elucidating processes that determine major climatic phenomena, and at better understanding the causes and effects of large-scale environmental changes. One study uses a novel approach to simulating certain chemical reactions taking place in the upper atmosphere and outer space. Another involves understanding the underlying chemical processes behind such environmental hazards as ozone depletion and acid rain. Still another seeks to understand the greenhouse effect and climatic change by reconstrucing ancient climatic patterns through an investigation of stable isotopes of carbon and oxygen in plant material.

Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv University, the largest of Israel’s higher education institutions, has long recognized the complex and multidisciplinary nature of environmental and ecological research. This led to the creation, in 1994, of the Porter Super-Center for Environmental and Ecological Studies which will allow for basic and applied research projects on logistical and time scales transcending single scientists and departments. The Super-Center has been involved in studying the environmental response to such man-induced disturbances as fire, oil spills, pollution and radiation. Another specialty is biological and biochemical markers for pollution including such examples as lichen, stress proteins, cytochrome 450, metallothioneins and acetylcholine inhibition.

Within the framework of Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Life Sciences, the Institute for Nature Conservation research is engaged in ecological, biological and toxicological studies of the environment in Israel and their application in nature conservation. Research interests include nature conservation, marine and freshwater ecosystems, environmental pollution ecosystem rehabilitation, biological pest control, ecotoxicology, chemical ecology, animal behavior and population genetics, air pollution, insecticides and pollination. Current programs range from such subjects as nature conservation and dynamics of endangered aquatic and terrestrial systems to the effect of urbanization and industrial pollution on environmental quality, from ecological pathology as environmental pollution early warning systems to biological pest control

(including application of genetic engineering methodology).

Dr. Jacob Garty of the Department of Plant Sciences and the Institute for Nature Conservation Research has conducted wide-ranging research on the role of lichens as environmental biomonitors in Israel. Studies conducted in Israel over the past two decades have focused on the ability of certain lichen species to serve as comparative monitors of air quality. A comparison of the concentrations of certain metals in lichen growing on roof-tiles, for example, indicated high levels in urban and suburban sites in comparison to rural sites in Israel. When additional studies compared the heavy metal content of the lichen and its substratus (concrete roof tiles) in order to determine the relative contribution of the substratum to the heavy metal content of the lichen, it was shown that the concentrations of metals in the lichen in the heavily polluted area were many times higher than in the substratum. The uptake of these metals from the tile was almost negligible.

Yet another study, initiated by Dr. Garty in 1974, focused on a shrub-like lichen for the purpose of assessing air quality in different parts of the country. The comparison focused on analyses of the mineral element content of this lichen growing on twigs of the carob tree in the HaZorea Forest

(in Northeast Israel) and on the relocation of the lichen with its substrate (detached carob twigs) in different sites to monitor the contamination produced by power plants, oil refineries, car traffic, agricultural activity and a steel smelter. A comparative analysis of both physiological parameters and the corresponding concentrations of heavy metals after a 8-12 month period of transplantation yielded significant correlation. In the absence of instrumental measurements, these findings, which provided evidence of the presence of contaminating particles in the air, were an exclusive source of information at that time.

Environmental research is not confined to these departments alone. Many departments in Tel Aviv University deal with some aspect of the environment. Thus, for example, an important breakthrough in the area of oil bioremediation was made in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology. To overcome the problem of available sources of nitrogen and phosphorous, which are required by oil-eating bacteria, a Tel Aviv University team, headed by Eugene Rosenberg, developed a new controlled-release hydrophobic nitrogen source that also contains insoluble phosphorous. The search for bacteria capable of degrading oil while using this nitrogen source then led to the identification of several bacterial strains that utilize it. After optimizing conditions in the laboratory, the system was tested using on-site bioremediation of a sandy beach polluted with several hundred tons of heavy crude oil from an accidental spill. The results indicated that the technology was applicable for bioremediation of oil-contaminated sand.

Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

Several departments of the Technion are active in environmental research. The Center of Research in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering is a prominent example. Here research focuses on water quality and treatment, wastewater treatment, industrial effluents and reuse, environmental biotechnology, solid waste treatment, air quality and aerosoles, water management analysis and administration, air engineering, and building climatology.

One recent project concentrates on monitoring wastewater treatment plants in the Haifa region (Kishon project) and the Dan (Tel Aviv) metropolitan area. Investigations focus on such aspects as processes occurring within the pipeline which transports the wastewater from Haifa to the Jezreel Valley, the limnology of effluent reservoirs, distribution of duration times in the reservoirs and methods of improving the quality of recovered water.

At the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering, watershed management is a subject of high priority. A major research effort is devoted to the watershed management of Lake Kinneret, including management of the drained Hula basin and its reflooding. Work is also being done to develop the watershed approach in the newly formed Kishon River Authority. The watershed approach includes the regional aspects of drainage, wastewater reuse and allocation, definition and mapping of sensitivity areas and land evaluation. In addition, watershed management includes the study of fertilizer applicationboth sensible application methods and development of environmentally friendly fertilizers.

Concentrated effort is also devoted to solid waste management. This multi-disciplinary approach includes the adaptation and development of life cycle analysis as well as the development, economic evaluation and system analysis of waste collection, separation and utilization methods and the production and utilization of compost. Recently, work on the reclamation of waste disposal sites was initiated in cooperation with the Department of Architecture. Within the scope of this study, two field projects are planned in two towns in the environs of Haifa to demonstrate new methods of municipal solid waste recycling.

Another team of scientists and engineers are working on the development of a novel method to produce clean energy. The method utilizes dry air as a driving force and is based on the pumpage and spraying of water in the upper part of a specially designed tower. The evaporation of the water cools the air and produces a downdraft that can drive turbines and produce electricity.

Ben Gurion University of the Negev

While scientists from several faculties at Ben Gurion University engage in environmental research (particularly in the Department of Geography and Environmental Development), the Sde Boker-based Institute for Desert Research merits special attention.

The Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research was established by the Israeli Knesset in 1973 as the Israeli national center for desert research, operated by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The Institute is situated about 50 km south of Beersheba, at the heart of the Negev desert, a location ideal for the study of the desert environment. The Institute is surrounded by several field research sites including the National Center for Solar Energy which provides a testing ground for an array of solar-thermal facilities.The Institute has intensive links with scientific institutions the world over and provides training facilities to scientists, research students and policy-makers from developed and developing countries.

The mission of the Institute for Desert Research is to study and disseminate the knowledge of the desert environment and the people of arid lands, for the purpose of exploring potentials for sustainable utilization of national, regional and global drylands and means to combat national, regional and global desertification. These are achieved by carrying out basic and applied research leading to sustainable development of drylands. As a Party to the new UN Convention to Combat Desertification, Israel plans to expand the activities of the Institute to become an International Center for Combating Desertification.

Haifa University

Environmental research in Haifa University is distributed within the framework of several departments and faculties, foremost among which are the Center for Maritime Studies, Institute of Evolution, and the Natural Resources and Environmental Research Center. The latter was established in 1987 to advance research on problems of the environment, natural resources and energy, to encourage enlightened policy decisions, and to train academic manpower for the private and public sectors in these areas.

Following are some of the Center’s major research projects:

– Environmental quality, economic growth and the implication for green accounting and sustainable development.

– Sustainable development and urbanization: the case of Kiryat Shmona and the Galilee Finger region.

– A comparative analysis of water price support vs. drought compensation scheme.

– Economic incentives in a solid waste management policy.

– Assessing recreational benefits in the Hula project.

– Economic aspects of groundwater pollution: liability, regulations, and liability insurance.

– Development of economical and mathematical models and computer codes design for abatement planning of air polluting emissions from plants.

Bar-Ilan University

In Bar-Ilan University, research studies are largely concentrated in the Department of Geography where subjects concentrate on spatial and temporal changes in the natural landscape; river and coastal monitoring; airborne and satellite-borne remote sensing of urban climate; analysis of building density and changes in land use in urban areas and their environs; and ecological and ecological significances of open space landscapes.

One research study, for example, deals with the impact of climate change on geomorphology and desertification. The study examines the results of field investigations into the spatial variability of a number of quick response variables at the regional and plot scales. On the regional scale, it is shown that only a relatively small climatic change would be needed to shift the borders between the Mediterranean and arid eco-geomorphic systems. Consequently, because many regions of Mediterranean climate lie adjacent to semi-arid areas, they are threatened by desertification in a case of climate change. In studying spatial variability at the plot scale, it was found that a mosaic-like patterns, consisting of "arid" water contributing and "wet" water accepting patches is typical of the transitional semi-arid area. Such a pattern is strengthened by fires or grazing which are characteristic of this area. The development of such patterns enables most rainfall to be retained on hillslopes. Changes in the spatial pattern of contributing versus accepting water areas can be used as an indicator of desertification and applied to developing rehabilitation strategies.

In the Department of Life Sciences research focuses on a variety of subjects including the ecology and physiology of intertidal invertebrates; assessing the success of rehabilitation efforts on disturbed rangelands; environment-friendly methods of eradicating plant disease; assessing marine quality; risks and solutions for the preservation of coral reefs; and monitoring changes in water quality by means of optic monitoring.