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Science & Technology

Engineering Students Represent Drexel at National EPA Competition

April 30, 2012

Can liquid waste discharge from landfills actually be turned into a valuable fuel source? A group of students from Drexel University's College of Engineering earned an honorable mention for presenting this possibility as part of a sustainability design competition hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency that could earn them a $90,000 grant.

A team of nine researchers, including professors, graduate and undergraduate students, will put their proposal for a pilot-scale pond algae bioreactor that uses leachate and landfill gas as fuel, up against a national field of submissions in the People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Awards Program from April 21-23 in Washington, D.C.

Drexels team, led by Dr. Mira Olson, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, will present finding from two varieties of scale experiments, life-cycle and techno-economic analyses and a full-scale feasibility study that assessed the economic feasibility of coupling algae biodiesel production with leachate treatment and carbon dioxide emissions reduction at a landfill.

"Working on this project has given students an opportunity to tackle a design problem with real significance, Olson," said. "Despite the many advantages of algae production for next-generation biofuels, the technology has not yet proven to be economically competitive at full scale. Coupling the economic benefits derived from using waste streams as nutrient and water supplies while at the same time optimizing algal productivity becomes a challenging design question."

The P3 Awards were be presented in concurrence with the National Sustainability Design Expo held at the National Mall over the weekend. The grant program is a two-phase design competition with the goal of producing solutions for a sustainable future.

The process takes leachate waste streams from the landfill, which would otherwise be sent for cost-intensive remediation, and uses them as nutrient media to grow algae for eventual harvesting of bio-oil, Olson said. The project team has confirmed the ability of algae to grow on leachate in bench-scale experiments. We have also designed a pilot-scale algae bioreactor that may be used as a future research facility.

In September, the EPA selected Drexels group as one of 46 Phase I winners to receive a $15,000 grant and advance to the final round of the competition. This weekend the proposal faced the scrutiny of a panel of judges from the American Association for Advancement of Science while vying for a $90,000 grant from the EPA.

Drexel has a history of performing well in this competition. Dr. Sabrina Spatari, an assistant professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, who is a member of Olsons team this year, saw her proposal for a lightweight water retention system for green roofs reach Phase II of last years competition. Spatari was also invited to display the progress of her project as part of the Sustainable Design Expo over the weekend.

Joining Olson and Spatari on the research team are collaborators Dr. Grace Hsuan, a professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, Dr. Richard Cairncross, an associate professor of chemical engineering, and Dr. Susan Kilham, a biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. The professors are joined by graduate researchers Prateek Pant and Kaitlin Sniffen, both in the environmental engineering program, undergraduate researchers Edward Davis, an environmental engineering major and Eliya Hurd, a civil engineering major. Two senior design teams also played a role in the research: Matthew Wenrick, Carolyn Comer, Erin Hughes and Ashley Mundackal, from the College of Engineering, and Megan Sparaco, Tausif Ahmed, Eric Lister and Bob Rowntree from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Media Contact:

Britt Faulstick