TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A team of University of Alabama students were selected for a national competition to design solutions to challenges facing the environment, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced.
The students from the UA College of Engineering will explore a new method of disinfecting water using ultraviolet, or UV, LED lights instead of traditional UV lamps that create harmful mercury waste and are inefficient compared to LED technology.
“It’s clear that, like LED flashlights and light bulbs, ultraviolet LED’s are the wave of the future, but the best way to use this emerging technology to treat drinking water requires research,” said Dr. Mark Elliott, assistant professor in the department of civil, construction and environmental engineering and an adviser for the team.
EPA’s P3 – People, Prosperity and the Planet—Program is a unique college competition for designing solutions for a sustainable future. P3 offers students quality hands-on experience that brings their classroom learning to life, highlighting the use of scientific principles in creating innovative projects focused on sustainability. Past P3 teams have used their winning ideas to form small businesses and non-profit organizations.
“Each year, the projects and designs created by the P3 teams surpass expectations,” said Lek Kadeli, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “These students are creating sustainable solutions for our everyday needs, addressing some of the United States’ most challenging environmental issues and helping create a vibrant, growing economy.”
Students from UA, along with 41 other student teams, are part of the first phase of the program, the EPA announced Oct. 15. In the first phase, student teams submit a proposal for a project, and, if they are selected, they compete with other Phase I winners at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. At the Expo, teams compete for Phase II funding of up to $75,000 to take their design to a real world application.
“The P3 program enables students to experience the complete research and design cycle, from reviewing the scientific literature, through proposal writing, to designing and actually carrying out the experiments, analyzing their data, contributing to scientific knowledge and designing novel products,” Elliott said. “It provides a comprehensive research experience that is available to few university students.”
The UA team includes Simon Bedoya, a senior in civil engineering from Katy, Texas; Cheryl Clifton, a graduate student in civil engineering from Tuscaloosa, who earned a degree in civil engineering from UA in 2012; Lian Zhu, a graduate student in environmental engineering from China; and Joseph Waters, a graduate student in materials science from Yonkers, New York. Waters will be working with Dr. Patrick Kung, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.
UV light can be used to kill pathogens in drinking water and wastewater, but the current method of mercury vapor lamps are not energy efficient and create toxic mercury waste once they quit working. UV light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are an emerging, energy efficient and environmentally benign alternative for disinfection of waterborne pathogens, Elliott said.
Besides energy efficiency, no toxic waste, low heat and greater durability and portability, UV LEDs can be fine-tuned to different UV wavelengths, unlike current lamps that emit a limited range of UV light. UA’s P3 team will initially investigate the effectiveness of different UV wavelengths, either alone or in combination with others, in cleaning water to meet federal environmental standards.
Elliott’s students will examine the water while Kung and his student will focus on the optics and electronics of the UV lights, Elliott said.
Likely applications for the research, which could be developed in the second phase of the P3 Program, would include portable systems to clean water, Elliott said. Most water systems in the developed world treat with chemicals because of the cost of UV lamps, a process that also creates disinfection byproducts.
While LEDs would be more environmentally-friendly than chemicals, more research and development is needed before the technology can be scaled to handle large-scale water and wastewater treatment, he said.
Since 2004, the P3 Program has provided funding to student teams in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, committing more than $10 million to cutting-edge, sustainable projects designed by university students.
The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.