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Two research projects to be part of EPA P3 competition in Washington, D.C.

EPAEventBanner_t.jpgBOONE – Appalachian State University students will have two research projects presented at the 7th Annual National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., April 15-17, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While there, both projects will compete in the EPA’s P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet student design competition for sustainability.

The two projects are “Sun, Bottles and Beeswax: Local Solutions for Clean Water Using Solar Disinfection” from the Department of Technology and “Linking Wastewater Purification and Biofuel Production” from the Department of Biology.

Each student team previously received a $10,000 grant in the competition’s Phase I funding and is now eligible to win up to $75,000 in Phase II funding to further develop their project. Appalachian has won Phase II funding four times in the past five years for its projects, including a sustainable biodiesel production method and renewably powered greenhouses. A total of 11 projects have received Phase I funding in the past five years.

Sun, Bottles and Beeswax

Diarrhea caused by the lack of clean water kills two million people, most of whom are children, each year.  Because many people in developing areas don’t have access to fuel to boil their water the way people in developed areas do, a team from Appalachian is conducting research on a process that will clean water using solar energy.

In “Sun, Bottles and Beeswax,” students are researching the potential of using solar UV and heat to disinfect water in recycled plastic bottles to create clean water for the developing world.  Katie Cavert, a technology graduate student from Tuscaloosa, Ala., worked in Nicaragua as an environmental educator for the Peace Corps before attending Appalachian, and faculty advisor Dr. Susan Doll, assistant professor of building science and renewable energy, worked on energy and health issues in Rwanda before joining Appalachian’s faculty, which provided a great foundation for the two to build a team for this kind of project.

“Sun, Bottles and Beeswax” is a way for students to help local people use their own local resources to provide clean, safe drinking water through the use of pasteurization technologies.

“Water pasteurization happens at about 65 degrees Celsius, or approximately 150 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Cavert.  “When water reaches that temperature, about 99 percent of pathogens are killed off and the water becomes safe to drink.  We needed something that would indicate when adequate temperatures are acheived but that could also be used more than once.”

The team’s idea is to use plastic straws or pen casings and beeswax to create their own indicator for when the water has reached the right temperature.  The wax sits at one end of the tube, melts when the water in the container becomes hot enough and can be used over and over again.  Materials used in creating the indicator must also be available in very different parts of the world.

“Our design is based on the WAPI, or water pasteurization indicator,” said Cavert.  “WAPIs are produced in the United States, sent to developing nations and sold for around $7.  That’s not much to us, but many people can’t afford $7 in the developing world, where there may be little to no income at all.  We want to develop something that will help people but be available to them at the same time.”

If the team wins Phase II funding, students will go to Mexico and Rwanda where Appalachian has partnerships to verify availability of local materials, how people within the community can utilize those materials as a source of income and how to connect with local community educators to inform the people of the water pasteurization technique.

“Working with Dr. Doll has been a great experience,” said Cavert.  “She always emphasizes that it’s about the process, as much as about the outcome, of the project.  It’s nice to have a working relationship with another woman in a male-dominated field.”

Linking Wastewater Purification and Biofuel Production

A team of nine students is working with Dr. Mark Venable, professor of biology at Appalachian, to research the potential of using wastewater to grow algae, which can then be harvested and used to produce biofuel.

The focus of the project is to use algae to remove nutrients from wastewater on livestock farms, especially North Carolina hog farms, and to produce an environmentally friendly fuel.  The team is also researching the potential for algae to remove pharmaceuticals in human waste, including the hormone estrogen, that make their way into the water supply.

“The opportunity for the students to do this kind of research is very important to their education,” said Venable. “Students need to be exposed to what’s going on outside of the classroom.  Many times students think that biology is just read in a book, but they don’t realize how much work is being done to gain new knowledge in the field.  Research gives them an opportunity to see that and to have some career training as undergraduate students.”

For the project, algae are grown on a substrate, or surface on which the algae can attach, that can be taken out of the water to ensure that the algae and the pollutants they contain do not flow back into streams.  It also allows for easy harvesting of the algae for oil extraction and biofuel production.  When the algae are removed for oil extraction, what is left is clean, pure water.

Algae grow quickly and have the potential to make a lot of oil, but harvesting the algae when they grow in suspension in water is difficult because they are so small, which is why a substrate for them to attach to is an important part of the project’s systems.

Phase I of the project includes 12 systems, each four feet long, in which different parameters are tested.  These parameters include different amounts of nutrients to determine how much the algae can take, different pharmaceuticals to ensure the algae can take them out of the water, speed of water flow and how much oil is produced under different conditions.

“The P3 funding is perfect for this project,” said Venable.  “We use wastewater to grow algae and the algae to purify the water and produce biofuels economically.  It exemplifies the P3 project because we are cleaning up water for people to drink; working to defeat global climate change through the use of more environmentally friendly fuels; and creating new industry opportunities that will provide jobs to people in the area.”

If the project receives Phase II funding, Venable hopes to have two systems at 600 feet in length.  He also hopes to connect with a municipal wastewater treatment plant and local farmers to test his systems.

About the National Sustainable Design Expo

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Earth Day event features the National Sustainable Design Expo where EPA, green businesses, non-profits, government agencies and college students from across the country will showcase their efforts to protect the planet.  College student teams will be competing for EPA’s coveted People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) award,, which recognizes innovative solutions for a sustainable future and provides up to $75,000 of funding to further develop their projects. Several former P3 teams have actually gone on to create small green businesses and non-profits working with local nongovernmental organizations to implement their innovations. Additionally, the event includes great hands-on activities for all ages ranging from kids to adults.