Students’ biofilter media design for water treatment up for EPA prize

Published: Apr 29, 2016 8:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Gail Riese, gail@auburn.edu, 334-844-3447

A multidisciplinary team of undergraduate students from Auburn’s Departments of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Biosystems Engineering showcased their senior design work — a biofilter media design aimed to improve water treatment systems — during the USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo in Washington, D.C. in April.

A national science, technology, engineering and mathematics event, the expo provided the seven-member undergraduate team with a large venue to share their research and interact with thousands of attendees, including Environmental Protection Agency administrators. The work and travel of the student team was funded by a phase 1 award of the EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet program, also known as P3. During the event, the team competed against 50 universities for a phase 2 award, which will provide for the development to commercialization of the project.

expo photo

Andres Carrano, Philpott-WestPoint Stevens associate professor in industrial and systems engineering, and David Blersch, assistant professor in biosystems engineering, collaborated on the phase 1 proposal that provided the concept development and mentored the cross-curricular student team. 

Following the award announcement in October 2015, Carrano and Blersch recruited students from each of their respective departments and streamlined the deliverables so it could also serve as the students’ senior capstone project. 

“The combined senior design group from two engineering departments is a unique model for Auburn, and made for an excellent learning experience for the students, demonstrated by their exemplary performance at the expo,” Blersch said. “The cross-seeding of ideas from their collaboration enriched their educational experience as they developed expertise in another academic field through interactions with their peers.”

At the expo, the team’s booth featured a display of 3-D printed spherical objects and a large clear glass cylinder filled with bubbling green gooey water, which was a hit with each of the curious young minds that came by.

“Though they could not compete with the penguins from SeaWorld or the rockets from NASA, their booth was one of the most popular university exhibits,” Carrano said. “I was amazed at the innovation from this undergraduate multidisciplinary student team. Their work has clearly expanded the technical and functional limits of biofiltration.”

Stephanie Gray, industrial and systems engineering team leader, explained the project to a group of small children this way: “We use super cool shapes to filter water. We place the shapes into a bioreactor that contains a bunch of dirty water. Bacteria in the water attaches to the super cool surface of the shapes and starts to live and grow there. The super cool shapes are like fancy houses. As it lives there, it gets hungry and eats the pollution in the water.”

Having learned about 3-D printing in her industrial and systems engineering discipline, Gray was excited to share her knowledge with the team and happy her cohorts in biosystems did the same, introducing her to nitrification, bioreactors and fisheries.

“I didn’t know anything about 3-D printing until this project. We taught them about biology,” said Eric Vogt, biosystems engineering senior who designed and fabricated the bioreactor. “Our team had a lot of fun throughout the semester and at the expo. We educated many people about our project.” 

Outcomes of the project revealed a biofiltration system that uses a more efficient media capable of treating 50 percent more water than the current product on the market.

“I would not be surprised if some of the students’ ideas are commercialized in the near future,” Carrano said.

In addition to Vogt and Gray, team participants included Olivia Elliott and Ann Nunnelley from biosystems engineering and Zane Trott Jr., Michael McClay and Bakr Nassief from industrial and systems engineering.

The EPA is expected to announce the recipients of the P3 phase two competition in June at which time each award-winning team further develops their design, implements it in the field and moves it to the marketplace.

Photos from the expo may be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/auburnengineers/sets/72157667115197900