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Solutions 2012: Energy and the Environment

What's in Your Water?

As demands on resources grow, engineers are called upon increasingly to provide solutions for our one small planet. With core strengths in solving issues regarding water resources, nanotechnology, nuclear waste, alternative energy and environmental protections, Vanderbilt University School of Engineering faculty and students work on projects that have immediate impact, as well as those that lay the groundwork for the future.

Are landfills, energy providers and construction sites adding contaminants to water supplies and soil? How do firms and regulators determine if manufacturers and labs are leaching chemicals into the food chain? When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wanted comprehensive ways to test for environmental impact or problems, it turned to an international team headed by David S. Kosson, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering in Vanderbilt's civil and environmental engineering department.

Partnering with the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, Kosson, Research Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Andrew Garrabrants and their co-researchers determined and developed a protocol they call Leaching Environmental Assessment Framework (LEAF), four leaching tests that can be used in different situations and with a variety of materials.

The four leaching test methods—a pH dependence leaching test, a percolation test, a tank leach test and a compacted granular leach test—comprise a tiered assessment methodology that is more robust and flexible than previous
approaches. LEAF represents a major shift in leaching assessment as it goes beyond the single-point pH tests currently in wide use. The LEAF approach can assess the long-term release of inorganic and organic contaminants for various materials in diverse disposal and beneficial use scenarios.

The EPA, Netherlands Ministry of Environment, and European Union's Directorate General for the Environment have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, LEAF as a foundation for environmental regulation management of contaminants from wastes and construction materials.

Kosson, who is principal investigator (with co-principal investigator Charles W. Powers, professor of environmental engineering) of the multi-university Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation, is now evaluating how to apply those leaching tests and assessment methodologies to Department of Energy needs. One project seeks to define the applicability of LEAF methodologies for waste forms, such as cement-stabilized wastes, in-situ grouted contaminated soils, and alternative waste forms for low activity and secondary wastes planned for disposal at DOE-Environmental management sites. CRESP will recommend how the EPA processes can aid in decision making for the DOE.

leaf tests

Shown: LEAF tests

CRESP is one of the nation's leading independent, interdisciplinary university research institutions. It provides both guidance and peer review of the evolving effort to utilize risk methods and evaluations to clean up the nation's nuclear weapons production waste sites and test facilities. It also has an emphasis on including stake-holders—those who have a stake in effective cleanup of federal facilities. Vanderbilt has served as CRESP's lead organization since 2000. It recently was renewed for an additional five-year period starting in 2012.

CRESP member institutions include Georgia Institute of Technology, Howard University, New York University School of Law, Oregon State University, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Rutgers–The State University of New Jersey, University of Arizona, University of Wisconsin–Madison and Vanderbilt. Its researchers and leaders are among the nation's top technical, engineering, scientific and policy experts. 

Federal funding in support of these efforts has come from the U.S. EPA Office of Research and Development and the DOE Office of Environmental Management (CRESP).

It doesn't matter what your engineering discipline is: At Vanderbilt University School of Engineering, it seems everyone has an interest in issues relating to energy and the environment. Here are some recent projects by students and faculty.


Don't Eat Your Spinachsustainable design

A five-student team of chemical engineering and mechanical engineering seniors used a protein from spinach in the design of a biohybrid solar panel to win a Phase II $90,000 grant from the EPA at the 2012 National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. Biohybrid solar panels could some day replace silicon-based solar cells, which are expensive and energy-intensive to produce. The students extracted Photosystem I (PSI), the protein in plant chloroplasts that converts light to electrochemical energy, from spinach and used it as the working medium in the biohybrid solar cells. Not only did the Vanderbilt team earn funding to further develop the design, they also won the Marketplace Innovation Award from Paladin Capital, a private equity firm, and the Student Choice Award, a special nod from their peers in competition. The team built their biohybrid panels and traveled to the expo through a $15,000 Phase I grant. Graduating seniors Eric Dilbone, Phil Ingram, Trevan Locke, Paul McDonald and Jason Ogg handed off the next phase of work on the design project to a new team of students under the direction of Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering G. Kane Jennings and Professor of the Practice of Mechanical Engineering Amrutur Anilkumar.

The spinach cell solar research received funding from the EPA and National Science Foundation.

Shown: Vanderbilt students showcase their project at the EPA's Sustainable Design Expo 2012


Solutions for a Thirsty Planet

sri lankaWater serves as habitat, element, resource and necessity for life. Civilizations have thrived or collapsed due to water. Yet it is not inexhaustible. George Hornberger, Craig E. Philip Professor of Engineering and University Distinguished Professor, works to understand complex water-energy-climate interrelationships and determine how hydrological processes can solve demands on water resources globally. Chair of civil and environmental engineering, Hornberger is also director of the interdisciplinary Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment, which explores the environmental impacts of individual, institutional and societal choices related to energy, water and climate. Hornberger recently traveled to Sri Lanka to research environmental impacts of energy and water use in a changing climate, as well as how household and farmer beliefs and behaviors affect, and are affected by, these responses.

The Sri Lanka project has just been awarded a five-year, $3.7 million NSF Water Sustainability and Climate (WSC) Program grant (NSF-EAR 1204685).

Shown: Water research in Sri Lanka


Clean and Practical Power

What the world needs now is reliable, inexpensive, efficient and emission-free energy—and the next generation of fuel pintaurocells could provide it. Peter Pintauro, the H. Eugene McBrayer Professor of Chemical Engineering, works on both membrane and catalyst electrodes for hydrogen/air fuel cells. He has developed a polymer nanofiber electro-spinning technique to fabricate fuel cell membranes with outstanding mechanical strength and excellent durability. Such fuel cell membranes hold out the promise of improved fuel cell power output at lower overall fuel cell device costs. Pintauro, chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, also has devised and tested a new fuel cell electrode structure, also based on nanofiber electrospinning, which significantly lowers the required amount of expensive platinum metal without sacrificing power generation. Plus, the electrodes are extraordinarily durable and easy to fabricate. The technologies, protected by Vanderbilt patent filings, ultimately will make fuel cells a cost-effective and practical power generation option for automotive, stationary and portable electronics applications. Pintauro's membrane work is currently funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army, and he is working with Nissan North America and Merck & Co. of Germany to scale-up and commercialize the nanofiber fuel cell electrode technology.

Pintauro's fuel cell membranes research also received funding from the DOE.

Shown: Pintauro in his Olin Hall lab

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Photos, from top: Steve Green, courtesy of the EPA, George Hornberger, John Russell