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Science Works: EPA Sponsors Student Sustainable Design Competition

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MUSIC: “Science Works” theme music

LACAPRA: Welcome to EPA’s “Science Works,” a podcast about how the EPA uses science to meet its mission to protect your health and environment. From “Science Works” at EPA, I’m Véronique LaCapra.

Every year, EPA sponsors the P3 student design competition. P3 stands for People, Prosperity and the Planet, and students from any U.S. college or university can participate. The competition challenges students to work together in interdisciplinary teams, to design and build sustainable technologies that improve quality of life, promote economic development, and protect the environment.

This year, forty-three teams made it through the initial selection process, winning grants of $10,000 each. On April 18th, they gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC, to participate in EPA’s fifth annual National Sustainable Design Expo. At the foot of the U.S. Capitol, the students set up their displays and prepared to talk about their projects with expo visitors. The teams would also present their projects to the P3 judges, who would recommend which teams would receive awards of up to $75,000 to implement their designs.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was there to welcome the students.

JACKSON: “I’m here because you guys represent something that is very dear to my heart: you represent the application of science in the aid of the environment. I’m here first and foremost to salute you, and to thank you for work that I know takes a long time, sometimes feels tireless, sometimes feels like you’re in the trenches, sometimes feels like it will never see the light of day, well here’s a beautiful day, here’s the light, I’m here to see it, and I just want to thank you for keeping at it, your professors and each and every one of you.”

LACAPRA: The projects covered a wide range of topics. Many focused on sustainable energy production. This year, one team developed a new process for making biofuels from algae:

“Basically what we’re trying to see is if you can use sustainable sources of CO2 to grow the algae, and produce biofuels that can significantly offset our fossil fuel needs.”

LACAPRA: Several projects explored ways to harness the sun’s energy, like this solar stove:

“We have a large Fresnel lens, which is just a plastic lens, very lightweight, very cheap […] and that concentrates a large area of light, to a very small circle. And so that heats up a metal surface, which then conducts the heat to a hotplate.”

LACAPRA: Water was another major resource addressed by the P3 teams. While some students developed systems to improve water conservation here in the U.S., others looked for ways to provide clean, safe drinking water to communities in developing countries. One team designed a simple device to remove arsenic from groundwater in Mongolia. Their process takes advantage of arsenic’s tendency to attach itself to iron:

“We take iron particulates, we mix them into the water and […] stir it up. So the arsenic starts to cling to the iron particulates, and then it goes through a tube to a lower-based box that has a flywheel inside of it, that has rectangular magnets. So when you spin the wheel, it collects the iron particulates and the arsenic that’s connected to the iron particulates. And out of a tube in the bottom part of that box comes the clean water.”

LACAPRA: Other teams considered water issues related to agricultural development. This project involved the manufacture and installation of water pumps to irrigate community gardens in rural South Africa:

“What we’re hoping to do is to create a way for this pump to be manufactured in South Africa, so the technology can be spread throughout South Africa, a lot more efficiently and a lot more long term.”

LACAPRA: Here in the U.S., some projects focused on making buildings more environmentally sustainable. One team worked on expanding an existing “green building” technology – “green roofs” – into areas with low rainfall. As their name suggests, “green roofs” are covered in vegetation, which helps to keep a building cool.

“There are green roofs existing, but those are in areas that have water available, and so in these dry environments we have to figure out a way to design a system that can both use water efficiently while also providing the active cooling effects that we need for this design to be beneficial.”

LACAPRA: Other students turned their attention to “green chemistry.” This team explored how to reduce the hazardous wastes produced in chemical manufacturing processes.

“We’re trying to find environmentally-friendly methods to make anti-cancer medication. The current methodology requires all sorts of solvents and chemical reagents that just contribute to the waste stream. So what we are trying to do is find shorter processes that require less chemicals to make these drugs and medicines.”

LACAPRA: The teams presented their projects to a panel of sixteen judges, including experts from business, government, and academia.

“Judges, it is now one o’clock. Judges, it is now one o’clock.”

LACAPRA: It was Maurie Cohen’s first time judging the competition.

COHEN: “So I’ve had the chance over the last two days to see all the great and wonderful ideas that are taking place at colleges and university campuses around the country.”

LACAPRA: As a professor of environmental social science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Cohen was most interested in the social context of the students’ environmental engineering projects – the “people” part of “P3”:

COHEN: “There’s a, a long history of great engineering ideas failing because of a failure to recognize and embed themselves within the larger social and political context, and what is great to see is that many of the projects here are the result of collaborations that have taken place with real communities. So this is not easy stuff.”

LACAPRA: But P3 isn’t all about overcoming challenges. The expo also provides an opportunity for students from across the country to meet and learn about each other’s work, and to exchange ideas with representatives from environmentally-minded businesses, government agencies, and non-profit organizations – and with the general public.

“It’s very impressive, very educational.”

“Great to see the size of the event. It makes a big statement.”

“I think it’s good and great for the environment!”

“You know, I mean I’m 62 years old, and I don’t have any kids, and it’s great to see – I mean these are the people who are going to create the future that we hope is going to be more sustainable and more sensible than what we’ve been doing so far.”

“It’s an excellent, excellent way for the students to get involved – the college students – and even everyone else. I’ve learned a lot today. I’m excited!”

LACAPRA: And how did the students feel about their P3 experience?

Lori Gonzalez, JUNIOR, Lafayette College, Pennsylvania:
“I could say that well this is my – the best experience I had in college, like personally as a student. I’m a civil engineering student. I think it’s important for us to learn in the classroom and then apply this knowledge out in the field.”

Andre Watts, SENIOR, University of California, Davis:
“I think there are a lot of great competitors here, there’s a lot of great projects.”

Erica Porras, GRADUATE STUDENT, Appalachian State University, North Carolina:
“I’m just really excited to be here. I – I also feel like it’s like the prime time for this sort of research. People are starting to realize how important sustainability, and technology related to sustainability is, so I think if funds and priorities are placed right, these next few years might, you know, show a lot of very interesting, innovative sustainable technologies. And I hope ours is one of them!”

LACAPRA: The competition culminated in an awards ceremony in the new U.S Capitol Visitor Center. EPA’s Acting Science Advisor, Kevin Teichman, announced the winning teams:

TEICHMAN: [APPLAUSE] “And now, the six P3 award winners.”

LACAPRA: Who were they? To find out, you’ll have to visit our website, at epa.gov/P3. You’ll also be able to see photos of the students, get more information on all the projects in this year’s competition, and listen to more P3 podcasts.

In this podcast, you heard the voices of students from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, the University of Arizona, the University of Pittsburg and Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and the University of California at Davis and Los Angeles. They were:

STUDENTS: “Erica Porras.” “Allison Hahn.” “Djuna Gulliver.” “Andre Watts.” “Farnosh Family.” “Karen Fong.” “Lori Gonzalez.” “M.M. Valmiki.”

MUSIC: "Science Works” theme music

LACAPRA: Thanks for listening to “Science Works,” a podcast series produced by EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Please check back again soon for our next program, at epa.gov/ncer.

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