EPA picks Mizzou team for prestigious P3 grant
The Environmental Protection Agency selected 38 collegiate teams for 2016 People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) grants to develop novel solutions to real-world environmental problems, then present them at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. A University of Missouri team’s project to better and more efficiently test for contaminants in water associated with hydraulic fracturing piqued the EPA’s interest.
Five students — three from the College of Engineering, one from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and one from Biological Sciences — and civil engineering Associate Professor Maria Fidalgo received an EPA P3 grant for their project, “Water quality monitoring at hydraulic fracturing sites using molecularly imprinted porous hydrogels.” The team received $15,000 for initial research in Phase I and have the opportunity to earn a $75,000 grant to potentially create and market their product.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a prominent issue in the areas of energy and the environment. The process involves drilling down, then using a pressurized mixture of water, sand and chemicals to force out gas. One of the environmental concerns associated with this process is the potential for chemicals to infiltrate nearby water supplies.
The current system of testing for these chemicals is time consuming and requires off-site analysis. So Fidalgo, civil engineering graduate student Jingjing Dai, civil engineering undergraduates Emily Kahanic and Darryl Rockfield, biological science/OBGYN graduate student Tori Balise and CAFNR graduate student Danh Vu decided to develop a sensor that can test for trace evidence of harmful chemicals on site.
“It’s just a plastic strip you dip in the water,” Fidalgo said. “Eventually, we want it to detect very low levels — the levels at which you should start to worry about health impacts — fairly easily.
“That sensor, that plastic strip, is porous and has different sites available to trap contaminants — it’s like a parking spot. The contaminants we’re actually targeting will have a preferential space there. If they are in the water, they will go in, and others won’t be as comfortable binding to those spots.”
The potential practical impact on a currently pressing environmental issue was part of what drew the students to the project.
“This is a unique opportunity to develop new methods to detect chemicals,” Vu said.
“I knew (Fidalgo) was doing research on this topic, so I just asked if I could help out with it,” Kahanic said.
On April 16 and 17, they’ll have a chance to show their progress toward attaining that goal at the National Sustainable Design Expo in the nation’s capital. One of the problems the team had in creating its presentation, however, was how to provide a visualization of the technique without the chance to test the strip ahead of time and take nanoscale images. Eventually, they asked mechanical engineering graduate student Bilal Hussain to 3D print a model of how the molecules bind to the receptor site.
“We make contaminants into these polymers, then try to extract them from the polymer and see if we can rebind this template into our sensor and find another signal,” Dai said, using the model to explain the process.
The goal is better information. With on-site testing, companies could work immediately to mitigate any potential contamination problems, perhaps alleviating environmental concerns and providing peace of mind for those who use the water that such problems could immediately be remedied. The benefits of such a sensor appear universal.
“If you work toward a tool that will make information available for more people, I think you’re contributing to solving that difficult conversation, bringing data to the table and seeing where everybody is and moving from perceived risk to real solutions,” Fidalgo said.