Undergrad researchers win prestigious EPA award

A team of eight Radford University undergraduate students has received a coveted national award for its innovative approach to water purification.

The People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) competition by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was held in April at the 9th Annual National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. Based on their project proposals and presentations, RU and six other teams will receive Phase II grants of up to $90,000 each to develop their designs and bring them to the marketplace.

The interdisciplinary RU team members—Elizabeth Crook, Madelein Ford, James Freeman, Dennis Godward, Jacob Shelton, Craig Slate, Matt Sublett and Rebekah Webster—were selected from more than 45 collegiate teams that won Phase I grants of $15,000 for this year's national program.

RU's winning P3 team

The winning RU team includes chemistry and geology students.

"This project is an example of interdisciplinary research with real-world applications," said chemistry Professor Francis Webster, the project investigator along with chemistry Professor Cindy Burkhardt. "The team worked days, nights and weekends for the past year and is competing successfully with graduate and undergraduate researchers from top research institutions across the nation."

The RU team includes chemistry and geology students. The objective was to design and develop a sustainable technology to protect people’s health and the environment while promoting economic development. The RU team developed a synthetic humic acid material as an inexpensive adsorbent that can remove water pollutants, including arsenic, heavy metals and organic contaminants, while improving existing sand filtration technology.

"To clean water of deadly stuff, we're transforming simple sugars with common chemicals and combining the resultant carbon nanoparticles with sand, a ubiquitous material," said Godward, a senior chemistry major from Thaxton.

During Phase II, Webster said, the team will address scalability issues. "We know that the science works, so the next phase is to move from making grams to kilograms of adsorbent and partner with industry to test it in commercial applications.”

Joining RU as winners of this year's P3 awards are teams from Loyola University of Chicago, University of Massachusetts Lowell, San Jose State, Georgia Southern University and two teams from Cornell University. This year's competition featured about 300 student innovators showcasing their projects before a panel of expert judges convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

J. Orion Rogers, dean of the RU's College of Science and Technology, said, "Dr. Webster and the Chemistry Department faculty members are the embodiment of what Radford University does best: They take motivated students to places they never imagined they could go intellectually and achieve success they never dreamed was possible."

"The results and applications from this project and the experience of conducting and presenting their research will enable these students to solve even bigger scientific problems as graduate students and professional scientists," Rogers said.

Every year, the National Sustainable Design Expo features EPA's P3 competition and highlights other sustainable initiatives, programs and technologies developed and implemented by nonprofit organizations, government, and state agencies. This year's expo was co-sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers and Engineers Without Borders USA.

Jun 20, 2013
Don Bowman
(540) 831-7523