By Caroline Comer
Three universities in Appalachia were among 32 higher education institutions that were awarded grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December 2020.
Each university received up to $25,000 to demonstrate proof of concept for projects that aim to improve air quality, provide clean and safe water, develop sustainable and healthy communities, and implement safe chemical usage.
These projects are then eligible to compete for up to $100,000 to evaluate the science in a real-world setting. The funds originated from the EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet grant program.
In Huntington, West Virginia, Marshall University researchers utilize recycled plastics to create what they expect will be a long-lasting and low-cost alternative to conventional water pipes. Leading the project are Suk Joon Na, assistant professor of geotechnical engineering and Sungmin Youn, an assistant professor, environmental engineer and water research specialist.
These pipes are traditionally made of one of two materials, polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, and polyethylene. Replacing these conventional pipes in water infrastructure with the recycled ones Marshall researchers are developing may avoid landfill waste, according to Youn.
Na and Youn proposed a replacement that uses recycled high density polyethylene, or HDPE, reinforced by nanoclay, a composite material.
However, these recycled materials alone have a higher risk of failure over time, which is why Na and Youn are experimenting with nanoclay. The nanoclay reinforcement protects the plastics’ material properties from chemical degradation, according to the scientists’ proposal.
“We want to improve these properties,” Na says.
The use of clay on recycled HDPE is also cheaper than the use of new, unaltered plastic.
Faculty members at Virginia Tech received a $25,000 grant for a project to convert food waste into chemicals that are friendly to the environment, and use those chemicals to recover rare earth elements. The project aims to redirect food waste from polluting landfills and has the potential to “promote the establishment of secure domestic rare earth supply chains,” according to an EPA press release.
At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Albert Presto, an associate research professor of mechanical engineering, is on a team working with volatile organic compound sensors to measure day-to-day processes. The team received an EPA grant for $25,000 to fund the first phase of the project.
The research entails working with naturally emitted gases, like carbon dioxide from breathing. A sensor measures the output of these gases and produces data about air quality impacts.
Presto’s project aims to optimize air quality for indoor systems with minimal energy use. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, community members can volunteer to pilot sensors on their personal property. This allows for a broader range of measurements in many county neighborhoods.
The project winners will work with Phase I grants through December 2021, after which they will be able to apply for the second round of funding.