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U of I Students Develop Water Filtration with Global Implications

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In: Canton Daily Ledger exit EPA
June 02, 2007

URBANA -- A team of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Illinois has won an EPA award to develop a filtration system that will reduce the amount of nutrients draining off of agricultural fields—a system that could have worldwide applications.

The U.S. EPA awarded the team $75,000 as one of the top competitors in the program “People, Prosperity, and the Planet,” or P3. The competition began last year, when the team submitted their Phase I research and design proposal to the EPA. They were among a group of approximately 50 chosen to receive an initial $10,000 grant to begin research.

“We used the initial grant money to conduct lab experiments that used soil columns to test a variety of wood chips and other biomaterials as filtration material to clean water,” said Paul Davidson, a U of I graduate student in agricultural and biological engineering heading up the student team.

The students presented their results to a panel of judges at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on April 25. Only six of the 50 teams that competed were awarded the prize of $75,000, and this is the first time U of I has won this award. The award ceremony was held at the National Academy of Sciences.

Team members included Stephen Anderson, Malia Appleford, Greg Byard, Davidson, Joe Good, Greg Goodwin, David Haase, Daniel Koch, Brandon Kocher, Andy Lenkaitis, Jacob Mitchell, Amanda Olsen and Luke Zwilling. Dr. Laura Hahn of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the U of I has been associated with the team and participated at this competition.

Now the students will be moving their research to the South Farms at the U of I or another location to conduct field experiments.

“One requirement of the project was to provide objectives for the next phase of research should our proposal be funded,” said Joe Good, a senior in civil and environmental engineering. “We knew we had to move from a lab scale to a field scale. When you move from soil columns to an actual field, you’re going to get other variables that you can’t account for in a lab, but are still necessary to determine what's going on in the filter.”

Prasanta Kalita, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering and research advisor for the student team, is excited about the opportunities this research project presents for the students.

“Water quality is a big problem and concern in many developing countries, so we have teamed up with the G.P. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in India, and we will be installing one of these systems in India,” said Kalita.

“That university is the first agriculture university in India,” he continued, “and it was established with the help of the University of Illinois in 1962. Now we have a team of students and professors in that university that is interested in working with us initially through distance learning. We hope to bring some of their students here to study this technology, and then our plan is to go there (possibly in December) and help them establish a system that they can monitor. This will provide our U of I students an excellent opportunity to contribute in solving water quality problems for millions of rural Indians."

Brandon Kocher, a junior in chemistry, said the variety of applications for this research sets the U of I team apart from the others. “We can apply our system to agriculture here, but we can also apply it in India, clear around the world,” he noted.

“We even proposed to apply it to wastewater treatment in residential septic systems,” Good added.

“This system isn’t limited to one area or one location. It’s pretty much global," Davidson concluded. “And water quality is an issue everyone should be concerned with.”

The group will return to Washington, D.C. next year to present the final results of their research to the EPA. In the meantime, they will present their findings to water quality and engineering groups during the summer and in another national competition in San Diego at the end of October.

In addition to the grant money from the EPA, the students have received funds from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and a SURE (Special Undergraduate Research on the Environment) grant from the University of Illinois Environmental Council for their Phase I research. The group will continue to generate more funding to cover their international travel expenses this year.

Source: Prasanta Kalita; (217) 333-0945; pkalita@uiuc.edu

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