Environmental Engineers Qualify For National Contest

SOCORRO, N.M. May 9, 2011 – Four environmental engineering students have earned finalist honors in the Water Environment Federation contest to build a homemade water treatment system.
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The environmental engineering team that qualified for a national wastewater challenge is (from left) Danielle Shipley, Megan Rosebrough, Thomas Erbes and Sean Menk.
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Menk and Shipley load a bucket with oxidized steel wool.
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Menk drills holes to alleviate potential airlock in the purification system.
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Rosebrough pours contaminated water through a screen and towel as Erbes and Menk look on.
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Menk and Erbes pour pre-treated water into their three-tiered tower while Shipley and Rosebrough screen another bucket of polluted water at right.

Senior Sean Menk formed the group with junior Megan Rosebrough, sophomore Danielle Shipley and master’s student Thomas Erbes. The quartet has been working since February to design and build a water filtration system only out of components and materials found in a typical garage.

The Tech team is one of only 12 teams across the nation to be invited to the Residuals and Biosolids Conference in Sacramento, Calif., on May 22. The Water Environment Federation will stage the Wastewater Challenge during the conference.

Team advisor Dr. Frank Huang said he considers it impressive that the New Mexico Tech team is one of only three teams not from California.

The competition asks undergraduate students to design and build a water treatment system from common items found in a typical garage. The students built a filtration and adsorption purification system that should be able to treat 10 gallons of dirty water in a set time. The water simulates agricultural run-off and contains contaminants like coffee, nitrogen-rich fertilizer, egg cartons and orange juice.

The team has two hours to assemble their treatment system, 10 minutes to introduce the water into the system and another hour for the water to pass through the system.

Each team is then judged on how well their system improves water quality. These include dissolved oxygen content, turbidity, as well as phosphorous and nitrogen concentrations.

“The challenging part is trying to figure out a process to remove nitrates and phosphorus,” Menk said. “This project is completely hands-on, so I got to spend a lot of time in the lab with my teammates and we got to see things working in front of us.”

The students designed a system that includes a pre-treatment process and a secondary treatment process. The first process involves pouring the water through a series of screens and towels with different pore sizes to remove large particulates. The secondary process involves three tiers of 5-gallon buckets. Water filters through an initial sand filter, crushed charcoal, oxidized steel wool and finally through a finishing filtration setup).

“We know what we want to do, but we’re limited in technology and materials,” Erbes said. “A centrifugal pump would be awesome, but we can’t use any electricity.”

Environmental engineering professor Dr. Frank Huang has served as the team’s advisor. The team has also solicited advice from chemistry professor Dr. Jeff Altig.

Since designing and building the system, they have gone through a handful of trials, some of which ended in disaster.

“We’re trying to organize the order in which we filter things,” Shipley said. “It’s taken a lot of trial-and-error. We have to be patient and try to keep it together when things go wrong. We have a good sequence, but it took a few trials to get it right.”

Huang said the team has done quality work in learning how to remove the various pollutants and devised a series of steps that reflect good problem-solving skills.

Erbes earned a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Tech in 2007 and started a master’s program in environmental engineering this semester. He drafted all the full-scale CAD models for the team’s poster and oral presentations. He is interested in a career in industrial or municipal wastewater treatment.

“This project has been truly inspirational because we’re able to apply ourselves to a project that could potentially be used in a third world country,” he said.

Dr. Huang said the students have shown a high level of analysis, research skills, improvisation and problem-solving.

“This project gives them a chance to think about what they’ve learned in the classroom,” Huang said. “In the real world, the problems aren’t exactly like homework. There are always a lot of unknowns.”

Menk is also interested in a career in water treatment engineering.

“Hopefully what we learn in this small-scale project will be applicable on a large scale,” he said. “We’re seeing reactions occur and we get to see the things we learned in class applied in real life.”

Shipley said she’s enjoying the project because interested in environmental issues and because she is getting a good preview of the upper level classes she’ll take over the next two years.

“For me, I haven’t taken many applied classes, so this is a good preview,” she said.

Rosebrough, a junior, said she appreciates the hands-on nature of the project and the opportunity to work on a team.

“This has been very much a learning experience,” she said. “And it’s been a lot of fun to work with other people. It’s pretty cool to apply what we’ve learned in wastewater treatment.”

Rosebrough has an internship with Peabody Coal’s Lee Ranch Mine this coming summer. She’s looking forward to the conference and competition to network with professionals and to learn more about the industry.

Menk heard about the competition and started recruiting members in mid-February. The team has been meeting and working together a 5 to 6 hours a week since then.

“Sean came to me during the first week of school and asked if I’d help,” Erbes said. “I was bored, so I said, ‘Yes.’ I’m not bored anymore.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech