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Student research to tackle environmental issues

For the next six months, college students throughout the United States will be researching new technologies to address some of the nation's most pressing environmental issues, such as water quality and quantity, food safety and greenhouse gas emissions.

dents' research efforts, often doubling as their senior design projects, will culminate in competition at the 2006 WERC Environmental Design Contest to be held New Mexico State University April 2-6. They will select from seven environmental tasks that have been submitted by corporate or governmental sponsors to WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development.

A majority of the tasks focus on water issues.

One task that has been repeated for several years seeks easy-to-use, low-cost arsenic removal technologies to be implemented in rural, isolated communities. The proposed systems must remove arsenic from drinking water that also contains other contaminants such as silica and iron. The task was developed in response to newly adopted drinking water standards for arsenic content that will affect communities throughout the nation and may be particularly cumbersome to small and rural water systems due to the cost involved.

Another task challenges students to develop a low-cost, low-energy-use system for reclamation of brackish water. The removal of salt from inland water sources has become increasingly important in regions where there are not enough natural water resources available. Current technologies are energy-intensive, expensive and result in amounts of waste water.

In another water-related issue, students will develop an easy-to-implement process to clean a large city water distribution system that has been contaminated. This task is timely in light of the contamination of water systems in communities affected by Hurricane Katrina.

A fourth water-focused task seeks to protect the water supply through the development of a technology to remove chemical byproducts resulting from the production of semiconductors in a liquid waste collection system. Students are charged with finding the most economical and practical method to segregate and treat this waste stream.

Another task aims to improve food safety through the development of a simple method to clean up a food facility that has become contaminated with microbiological agents such as salmonella and E. coli. The solution must be cost-effective and take into account all aspects of cleanup, including waste disposal.

Two tasks aim to improve air quality. Offered for the second time in the design contest, one of these requires students to develop an innovative technique for removal and permanent storage of carbon dioxide, a heat-retaining greenhouse gas emission that contributes to global warming, from flue gas. WERC has long been involved in greenhouse gas research, starting in 2000 with a four-year cooperative project that resulted in the New Mexico Greenhouse Gas Action Plan and various community and industry awareness programs.

Another task seeks a method to eliminate black smoke plumes associated with diesel generators that are used in the semiconductor and other industries as backup power supplies.

"Not only does this research benefit the nation with fresh and innovative solutions to some of our most pressing environmental problems, but students gain a unique educational opportunity through experience of designing and developing technologies to real problems," said Abbas Ghassemi, WERC executive director. "Over the years we've seen many amazing solutions developed by the students, some of which have actually been implemented."

The contest has been held annually since 1991. Sponsors of the contest tasks include the American Water Works Research Association Foundation, Sandia National Laboratories, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy-Fossil Energy, Intel Corp. and Bechtel Corp.

The WERC consortium, led by the NMSU College of Engineering, consists of NMSU, the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Tech, Diné College and Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. For more information visit http://www.werc.net or call (505) 646-2038.