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EPA Grants Support Innovative Research

By Kevin Wilcox

The U.S. EPA's P3 program marks its 10th year with 40 grants to support innovative research by promising university students.

January 14, 2014—Forty teams of graduate and undergraduate students are working on an impressive array of research projects this year, from developing high-performance liquid-filled glazing units to developing low-cost water treatment to remove arsenic from low-flow sewer systems in rural areas. The research is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3).
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Stanford University students (from left) Keegan Cooke, Amy Pickering, and Yoshika Crider present their project focusing on community-level water disinfection technology as part of the 2013 P3 competition. The team was selected for an honorable mention for the project. (Read “Stanford University Wins ASCE Sustainable Development Award at EPA P3 Competition” in the April 2013 edition of ASCENews.) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The P3 program supports research into an array of sustainable solutions to real world environmental and health challenges. In Phase I of the competition, teams submit research proposals. The successful applicants are awarded $15,000 grants to pursue their projects.

"There are three general areas that are considered for the P3 Phase I proposals and they are the novelty and soundness of the proposed research project, the overall sustainability of the proposed project, and the educational and teamwork aspects embodied in the proposal," said Cynthia Nolt-Helms, the P3 program manager for the EPA, in written comments to Civil Engineeringonline.
"The teams participating in this year's P3 program embody the creativity and optimism [that] characterize each class of P3 teams," Nolt-Helms said. "The dedication and devotion of the students that participate in the P3 program provide an optimistic and innovative vision of a future in which people live in harmony with the planet."

This year's competition includes several projects that focus on challenges of interest to civil engineers.

A multidisciplinary team from Brigham Young University and the University of Utah are working on the design of a University Community Greenplex in Provo, Utah. This mixed-use design is envisioned to enable faculty, staff, and students to live in a small, walkable community that efficiently employs energy-saving technologies and is free of cars and trucks. The goals are to improve the quality of life while reducing the energy consumption and carbon footprint of the residents.

A research team from Cornell University is designing a project to explore an efficient way to remove arsenic from water from contaminated wells in small communities. The current technologies to remove arsenic are often poorly suited to the low-flow characteristics of small community treatment systems, the researchers noted in their grant application. The team is working to optimize recent advances in flocculation-sedimentation-filtration treatment trains for systems serving fewer than 2,000 residents. A bench-scale test system will inform future construction of low-flow, gravity-powered treatment systems in India.

Because visually clear water samples can still possess dangerous levels of turbidity, another research team from Cornell University is working to develop an accurate, portable turbidimeter using open-source components. The team noted in their grant application that currently available turbidimeters are expensive instruments designed for a laboratory setting. In addition to developing a simpler monitor, the team plans to incorporate technology that will enable its turbidimeter to be monitored remotely. The researchers envision such an instrument playing a role in efforts to bring clean water to remote areas.

Researchers from DePaul University will conduct soil quality testing in Chicago's Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood to develop a GIS map and list of proposed "green infrastructure" projects to address the contaminants in urban stormwater runoff. Because urban stormwater runoff is often contaminated with heavy metals and sediments, it is expensive to treat in a wastewater treatment plant. The team suggested in their application that small, parcel-sized green infrastructure in urban neighborhoods might provide a cost-effective alternative that also enhances urban aesthetics and safety. The team will involve local high school students in the testing program as a means of encouraging promising students interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

A multidisciplinary team at Miami University is working with the group Engineers Without Bordersto create and deploy a water filtration system that incorporates into sand a cationic protein found in the seeds of Moringa oleifera, a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree common in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The team seeks to bind the protein to the grains of sand, creating a continuous-flow water filter that combines "the filtration capabilities of sand with the antimicrobial and flocculating properties of the cationic protein," the team noted in its grant application. The team will eventually deploy the system in a small community in Ecuador, where the filter should enable the residents to store water without bacterial regrowth.

A research team at Western Kentucky University is conducting a comprehensive series of tests on liquid-filled glazing systems with the goal of reducing heat loads by more than 50 percent while preserving more than 90 percent of the visibility through the glass panels. The team will use fluid dynamic modeling to understand the physics and engineering issues of liquid-filled glazing units and develop a knowledge base of the behavior and operation of the units when deployed in a building. The team projects that liquid-filled glazing units will compare favorably with the currently available alternatives.

Obtaining clean drinking water during an emergency is the challenge being addressed by researchers at the University of Maryland. The team plans to develop and test a solar-powered, forward-osmosis, membrane-distillation water purification system. Testing of the system will examine "the effects of temperature, solute concentration, membrane module configuration, and operating parameters on water flux and contaminant removal of the combined process," the team wrote in its application. The team expects the system will produce high-quality water in harsh conditions.

Now in its 10th year, the P3 program has witnessed an evolution in student approaches. "The most significant trend we have seen is the continued enthusiasm and devotion the teams bring to creatively solving problems by involving a wide variety of players from the beginning," Nolt-Helms said. "We continue to see amazingly creative proposals to address difficult, often intransient challenges to sustainably living on the Earth. We have also seen more teams take a multidisciplinary approach and involve potential end-users at the beginning stages of their designs."

Nolt-Helms noted that this year's Phase I recipients will submit written project reports in March that will include proposals for the Phase II work on their projects or designs. Phase II grants are $90,000. An expert panel of judges will recommend proposals to EPA for the P3 Awards and Phase II grants in April at the 10th annual National Sustainable Design Expo, which will be held at the USA Science and Engineering Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., from April 26-27, 2014.


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