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College Kids Strut their Green Stuff, Are Awarded $1M in EPA Grants

May 16, 2012

It may not be true that every generation is smarter than the one that came before.

But I think it is. Why? One big reason is that every succeeding generation has access to more knowledge, more technology and more resources than the one before it.

Especially in this age, when the world changes so fast every minute. So one thing I'm always fascinated by is what future environmental leaders are doing while they're still learning in our schools and universities. There are many bright kids working on making the world more environmentally friendly and trying to come up with innovative solutions to problems many of us don't even think about.

A good example of this was the recent Environmental Protection Agency's 8th Annual National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The EPA held its People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) competition between more than 45 university teams, all of which aimed to turn an initial $15,000 grant into a new $90,000 grant. (Photo above: Members of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University team with their new water filtration system. Photo courtesy of Embry-Riddle.)

After two days of competition and judging, 15 winners were named (see the full list here), and the EPA awarded more than $1 million in grants. 

I went to find out exactly what made these project winners so special, and have passionate students and professors tell me why their work could make a difference in our world in the future.

Here's a look at five of the winners and their projects (cue the Whitney Houston lyrics, "I believe that children are our future..."):


Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, Ariz. and Daytona Beach, Fla.: I'm starting with this project winner because several of the other teams I talked to told me that Embry-Riddle's project was their favorite out of the whole National Sustainable Design Expo. Embry-Riddle, which is internationally known as an aeronautical training ground, devised a foldable solar-powered water purification system that can fit into a backpack, making it easily transportable to disaster-struck areas.

Marc Compere, a professor of mechanical engineering at Embry-Riddle's Arizona campus, said the idea came about after he and some students went on a relief mission to Haiti.

"In Haiti ... working with an NGO (non-governmental organization), we'd carry water purification systems that are big and bulky; it was a heck of a time getting those things on the plane," Compere said. "We thought we need something that is smaller and easier to transport."

So Embry-Riddle students began a senior design project, with one class working for a year to come up with a solution. What they came up with was a device with eight-foot-long solar panels, which fold up through approximately four different creases. The solar panels, Compere explained, provide the electricity for the pump, and the pump brings the dirty water into the backpack case.

There are three filters inside the backpack: a media filter, an ultra-filtration filter (which takes out the bacteria and the viruses) and a KDF (kappa delta frank) filter, which removes the heavy metals and the bad taste from the water).

"We've got a battery on it, as well," Compere said. "We tested this with the Volusia County (Fla.) water quality, and it passed all their tests."

The purifier can be deployed in less than 30 minutes and provides safe drinking water for up to 1,500 people a day, Compere said. It can run for 72 hours without sunlight if the recommended deep-cycle batteries are used.

"We're going to try to spin this off into a company and get it into the hands of the Red Cross and other organizations," Compere said. "You never know where the next disaster is going to happen."


Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C.: At Appalachian State, the idea for its EPA-award-winning project came from one of the strangest places: Student Bobbie Jo Swinson's hair salon.

No, really.

"She's a senior in our technology department, and she had worked as a hairstylist for a few years and had seen a lot of wasted water going down the drain during the shampooing of people's hair," Mike Hambourger, an assistant professor of chemistry, told me. "And she was very concerned about sustainability and environmental issues, so we started talking about what can be done."

What was done was the creation of an "indoor vertical wetlands," suitable for recycling gray (dirty) water from small businesses for immediate reuse. Hambourger explained that it "takes gray water from sinks and hair salons filled with shampoo and other chemicals, pumps it through this wetlands system and cleans out the contaminants" so that the water "can be used for irrigation and other purposes."

Instead of the water at these facilities going straight to a municipal water plant, it will have "an extra use before it goes to the treatment plant," Hambourger said of the invention.

The student team at Appalachian State has tested it at school and plans to, over the next 18 months, continue to test it at the lab and take it into the local community in Boone. According to an article in the Winston-Salem Journal, Swinson's employers at the hair salon were so impressed with her idea that they're implementing it. According to the article, the estimated cost of the new wall is $18,000, but it will save 35,000 gallons of water per year.

(Photo credit: Members of Oregon State University's team show off their flax-wool project. Photo courtesy of OSU.)


Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore.: The winning entry from Oregon State was also spurred on by a student researcher's life experience. Mark Ingman had visited a village in China and watched farmers dispose of the plastic coverings they had used. When he came back to the United States and did a little research, he found that American farmers have the same problem.

He approached professor Mary Santelmann at school and suggested they try to remedy the problem.

"These farmers need the mulch to grow the crops, and they need the plastic, but then when they're done they throw it out, and it ends up in landfills or burned," Santelmann told me. "So we went to a few conferences with organic farmers. They told us over and over again, 'We hate just throwing this stuff away.'"

The Oregon State team created a waste-wool product called a wool-flax mixture, which when combined with water produced a sheet that can be used to cover crops and whatever else a farmer would've used plastic for. Santelmann said the team's first test was one row in a crop field, covering only six or seven meters, but it worked.

"We've got more field trials out there, with students getting research experience," Santelmann said. "We're also looking at a flax-only mixture for people who are only growing vegetable crops and are not concerned with mulch."


(Photo credit: Members of Vanderbilt University's team show off their biohybrid solar panel. The team won three awards at the Design Expo in Washington, D.C., last month. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.)


Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn: The team from Vanderbilt may have won the most awards at the event in Washington; the school won the $90,000 EPA grant that the other 14 winners received; got the Student Choice Award, voted on by students from the other teams; and also won the Marketplace Award for Innovation, given out by the Paladin Capital Group.

Vanderbilt's entry was a biohybrid solar panel that substitutes a protein from spinach for rare metals (mined) and is capable of producing electricity.

"We've been working at using photosystem 1, which is a 10-nanometer protein that drives photosynthesis," explained Kane Jennings,  a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who helped work on the project. "We've been looking at solar energy in the last five years and what we could do with it. Plant proteins don't capture as much light as silicon, which is what most people use. But the important point is that photosystem is much more efficient with the energy it does capture. So we developed these two-by-two-foot solar panels that developing countries or small countries can use with their natural resources."

Jennings said his group of students already have results from their lab that would give a thousand-fold more power per area than using silicon panels, but he admitted that he is "two or three years away" from knowing if the project will work long term.

University of Oklahoma, Norman, Okla.: The University of Oklahoma's project was one of the most interesting, according to the other teams I interviewed. The school decided to build an Earthen house, which is a house made of compressed earth blocks.

Together with Habitat for Humanity, the university team has spent the past year testing wall samples and devising computer models trying to show that a house made with earth blocks is more energy efficient.

"It's sort of like living in a cave, like people have done for thousands of years," said Lisa Holliday, an assistant professor who helped lead the project team. "There's lots of anecdotal evidence that building with the earth is beneficial (to the environment), and we're trying to put data to that."

Holliday said the computer models have shown that an earthen house will use less energy, and that "you can take a basement of a house, and be able to build a whole house just out of the soil from that basement. Think about how much you could reduce construction costs if you did that."

Holliday said the houses will have the modern conveniences of plumbing, roof trusses and wiring, but the walls will be made of earthen materials.

I have no idea if I'd want to live in this kind of house, but I think it's fabulous that the kids are trying it out.

And that's what I'd say about all of these projects; they all come from a place of good, of people trying to make the world a more environmentally-friendly and better place.


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