Mines at forefront of water research

In July 2011 the Colorado School of Mines and its academic partners Stanford University, University of California, Berkley, and New Mexico State University received a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a new Engineering Research Center (ERC) focusing on solving a big problem: decaying and outdated water infrastructure in the US. The ERC for Reinventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt) collaborates internally and also works with a variety of industry partners, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Aurora Water, and the National Water Research Institute. The ERC adds to the already extensive water research being conducted at the school, including AQWATEC, the Advanced Water Technology Center.

Now, almost two years later, the ERC “has taken off,” according to Dr. Tzahi Cath,
who is the leader for the Engineered Systems Thrust of the ERC. The School of Mines, in addition to the NSF grant, receives $400,000 a year from the state of Colorado. The
funding goes towards, “student support, infrastructure development, new research facilities.”
Cath says that most of the research projects come from faculty, or grow out of previous research. “The nice thing about research is that while answering one question and start digging deeper, new questions start popping up which are the foundation for more research.”

Students from various backgrounds are heavily involved. Graduate students conduct the majority of the research, though undergraduate students still have an opportunity to participate. “We are starting to incorporate more undergraduates into the projects as research support. They are helping graduate students to conduct experiments, data analysis, and data compilation,” said Cath.

One of the exciting developments unique to the School of Mines has been the establishment of seed projects. Using some of the money from the state of Colorado, the
school has been able to fund small, innovative research, which has the potential for high returns. So far, two groups have proposed research ideas. Each has been given $25,000 and 6-7 months to come up with results. This pilot program is currently being extended to the other universities.

As an example of the research being done, the first of the two seed projects is looking at how to beneficially use the solid waste generated during wastewater treatment. “The solid waste in some places is already used to generate energy, but there is still left over waste. So we ask ourselves, can we burn it? Or gasify it? Or find some way to generate more energy from the leftover solids?”

The second seed project also addresses a challenging problem. “Another seed project is looking at the interaction between microorganisms in biological wastewater treatment processes and the degradation of emerging contaminants of concern such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products, flame retardants, etc. Most wastewater plants were not designed to handle these contaminants, but if we can find out more about the mechanism of how these bugs degrade the contaminants, we can change the engineering, and design better treatment plants. These two projects, along with many other pilot test programs, are able to utilize the unique Mines Park Test Facility. The test facility lies behind the fences near the Mines Park Apartments, and is a functioning water treatment plant. Over the last four years the plant has processed 7,000 to 9,000 gallons of wastewater a day. The test facility has a number of different pilot programs, or experiments, which test the feasibility of several wastewater treatment processes on a larger scale. Projects run a wide gamut, from a greenhouse, which tests the impact of using effluent water for crop irrigation, to algae ponds that use nutrients from the wastewater to grow algae for biofuels.

Cath explains that this unique facility benefits the school and the ERC, and is attracting growing visibility. Cath said, “Almost every month there is something new. The fact that you have this facility, and the land, and everything in place, including the ability to conduct water analysis on-site, allows everything to suddenly work, and then everyone wants to work with you. I think the important thing to know is that this is very unique, how many universities have their own wastewater treatment facility that lets you do any experiment you want?”

Projects supported by the Engineering Research Center require that at least two ERC universities and an Industrial Partner collaborate in each project. This kind of collaboration is atypical of university research, and Cath explained that it is not “simple or easy…People that have not worked collaboratively in the past have to develop new relationships and trust.” On the other hand, Cath explained that there are many benefits to this collaboration, including the opportunity for graduate students to be co-advised by professors from the different universities.

The Engineering Research Center is looking forward to continuing growth, and it is an exciting time as the School of Mines helps fulfill the goal of “changing the way we manage urban water.”

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