Ohio University

Chemical engineering students win national environmental design contest

Authors: Bennett Leckrone and Colleen Carow

Group of people in front of a table labeled "Ohio University"
Photo provided by Megan Cika

Ohio University chemical engineering seniors won a contest at the 29th WERC Environmental Design Contest, held April 7-10 at New Mexico State University, for their research on turning polluted water originating from farm facilities into fertilizer.

Tony Cardwell, Megan Cika, Ethan Donahue, Gary Fike, Nichole O'Connell, Evan Streator, Gabrielle Tysa and Mattie Vance took home a trophy and $2,500 toward OHIO’s entry next year, Streator said.

“It was a huge honor to us because this is the first time OHIO has won an individual task,” Streator said.

The annual multi-day competition gave almost students from across the country individual tasks ranging from spacecraft water systems, to drone exhaust, to mine water remediation, in order to find real-world solutions to world-wide environmental issues. Participating teams present their work through a conference-style poster session, and both written and oral presentations, which they showcase along with a bench scale model before a panel of environmental professionals who serve as judges for the contest.

“It gave them a chance to solve a real problem,” said WERC Program Manager Ginger Scarborough. “This is something that can bring the nation together.”

Working within the “Removal and Reuse of Phosphorus as Fertilizer from CAFO Runoff” task, which was one of six total tasks, the Russ College team looked at how to reduce nutrient runoff from CAFOs, or confined animal feeding operations. That nutrient runoff leads to eutrophication – when water becomes overly-enriched by nutrients and minerals, leading to excessive algae growth and a decline in water quality – in nearby bodies of water.

To help mitigate eutrophication, students focused on removing and repurposing elements such as phosphorus and nitrogen from the water.

“We can take these compounds dissolved in wastewater and turn it back into a useful fertilizer,” Streator said.

Scarborough commented that the Russ College students’ work positively impacts both water and soil quality, two of the three aspects of the competition.

“If we don’t have high quality water, there’s not much we can do,” said Scarborough, who emphasized that water quality is essential for development and life as a whole.

Students received two credit hours for their work, but it wasn’t part of a class. Streator said, however, that his Russ College courses prepared him for the high-level research.

“Our chemical engineering curriculum helped with this project through classes like reaction engineering, mass transfer, mass and energy balances, and fluid mechanics. These helped us understand our research as we progressed to our final design,” he said. “We also were complimented on the quality of our paper at the competition. Our curriculum pushes us to excel in technical writing, which helped a lot with the competition paper.”