June 19, 2008

Students and Faculty Combine Expertise in Multidisciplinary Research on Sustainable Perchlorate Removal

Project focuses on finding a hybrid, cost-effective method of removing contaminant from groundwater

A multidisciplinary sustainability research project is allowing students from majors in the liberal arts and engineering to combine their expertise to explore cost-effective methods for removing the harmful contaminant perchlorate from groundwater.

The project, which has been ongoing for several years and is supported by a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant, requires collaboration across numerous academic departments. It is being led by Steven Mylon, assistant professor of chemistry; Arthur Kney, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Laurie Caslake, associate professor and acting head of biology; and Javad Tavakoli, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

“The goal of this research is to develop an innovative and sustainable hybrid process that, if successful, would have the potential of removing perchlorate from a vast amount of contaminated groundwater with no harmful impact on the environment,” explains Tavakoli, a project faculty assistant.

“Involvement in research helps students appreciate the fundamentals they learn in the classroom setting, as without that knowledge they will be lost where to start,” states Mylon. “At the same time, those who stay with a project for few semesters develop certain research skills that are difficult to acquire in a semester long course. We have been able to introduce students to this project early in their Lafayette careers which helps them find their niche early. Last but not least, students get the opportunity to present results of their work at local and national conferences and their names as co-author of articles that are produced from projects like this.”

Perchlorate is a harmful ion that, if consumed, causes thyroid dysfunction and has been linked to certain cancers. It is used in the manufacturing of propellants such as rocket fuel, munitions, and fireworks. Leakage of perchlorate residue seeps into the ground, causing the groundwater to become contaminated. In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed perchlorate on its Contaminant Candidate List, which means it is a potential candidate for regulation, making this research, as Mylon says, an area of national interest.

According to Kney, there are currently two major remediation strategies: ion exchange, which is faster but produces waste with higher concentration of perchlorate when regenerated for reuse, and bioremediation, which produces little waste and is less expensive, but is also very time consuming. “The aim of this research, therefore, is to develop a hybrid technology that uses ion exchange technology to remove perchlorate from the sources in a timely fashion and employs bioremediation technology to treat the concentrated perchlorate regenerant solution,” he continues. “Over the past two years students have conducted laboratory experiments to identify the best operating conditions for merging these two technologies.”

Civil engineering major Jeff Shoemaker ’10 (Schnecksville, Pa.), geology major Maricate Conlon ’11 (Sandy Hook, Conn.), and chemical engineering majors Anne Rapuoda ’10 (Nairobi, Kenya) and Peter Coate ’10 (Allegany, N.Y.) will be working on different aspects of the project over the summer under the guidance of Kney, Mylon, and Tavakoli.

“[As faculty,] we all work extremely closely with students,” says Caslake. “They have some freedom, but we are pretty much engaged in deep collaborations with them. At first they do what we lay out, but we have been surprised at some of the good ideas they have come up with on their own.”

  • Students can read about how they can get involved in Lafayette’s various other green initiatives and personally reduce their environmental impact on the College’s What Can I Do? web site.
  • NSF Grant Helps Continue Water Contamination Removal Project
  • Growing Lafayette’s Exceptional Faculty
  • EXCEL/Undergraduate Research
  • Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Biology

posted in Academic News, Collaborative, High-Impact Learning, Faculty and Staff, News and Features, Students

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