p3

EPA’s 9th Annual P3 Competition: Supporting a Sustainable Future

By Dr. James H. Johnson, Jr.

P3 team displays their project this morning at the 2013 Sustainable Design Expo.

As the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research (NCER), I come across inspiring projects of great depth and innovation on a daily basis. It’s the best part of my job. Together with my NCER colleagues, we build and support partnerships between EPA’s own top notch researchers and the leading environmental and human health scientists and engineers in the world.

This morning, I got to meet the next wave of young scientists poised to join those ranks.

Today marks the opening of EPA’s s P3 student design competition for sustainability. The competition is designed to support and inspire science and engineering students to work together to develop sustainable solutions to environmental and related human health issues that embrace the three P’s of people, prosperity and the planet.

The competition is a two-phase process. In Phase I, teams were selected to receive grants of up to $15,000 to research and test original sustainability projects. This year 42 teams were selected, and over the next two days will be showcasing their designs to a panel of judges for chance to enter Phase II, which includes up to $90,000 in additional grant money to help bring their products to the marketplace.

The caliber of projects I witnessed is astounding, from recycling LCD monitors to creating a water supply to local communities through fog. And you don’t have to be the Director of NCER or a P3 judge to see the projects. The same demonstrations and displays we enjoy are free and open to the public, part of the National Sustainable Design Expo.

Past P3 teams have excelled, engaging local and international communities, and bringing sustainable solutions to pressing environmental and related human health challenges throughout our country and the world. A number of teams have leveraged their winning ideas into nonprofit organizations and small businesses, sparking job growth as they advance sustainability.

EPA’s 9th annual National Sustainable Design Expo is located on the National Mall in Washington DC between 13th and 14th streets, right across the street from the Washington Monument. Displays will continue until 6:00pm Thursday (today), and continue between 9:00am to 6:00pm Friday (April 19).

If you are in the area, I urge you to stop by and see the great work on display. You’ll see why it’s the best part of my job.

About the Author: Dr. James H. Johnson, Jr. joined EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research in 2012 as the Director. In his free time, Dr. Johnson enjoys golfing and learning Tai Chi.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: P3 Promotes Student Innovation and Sustainability Science

By Sarah Blau

In Washington, DC this week? Then come on out to the National Mall today and tomorrow, and meet the teams of college students gathering to compete in EPA’s P3 competition as part of the National Sustainable Design Expo.

“P3” stands for People, Prosperity and the Planet. Working in teams, students strive to solve environmental challenges in ways that benefit people, promote prosperity and protect the planet—all at the same time. P3 competitors are outside-the-box thinkers and continually inspire us with their innovation and ideas.

The competition has two phases. In Phase I, student teams and their faculty advisors submit research proposals for a chance to win seed money to research and develop designs for sustainable solutions to current environmental and human health challenges. In Phase II, winning teams receive additional funding to start developing marketable prototypes of their sustainable designs.

Embry-Riddles Aeronautical University students demonstrate their design.

P3 sustainability projects span the gamut of environmental topics—from air quality to water availability to harnessing solar energy. Since we’re chatting “Around the Water Cooler” today, here is a quick glimpse at just a handful of the water-related 2012-2013 P3 grant recipients:

  • Loyola University of Chicago students are designing a unique green process to treat byproducts of biodiesel production, using a combination distillation and wetlands system to treat and reuse contaminants onsite. Their goal is to make biodiesel production fully sustainable. (Phase I)
  • Working with a university in the Philippines, Manhattan College students are developing a treatment system that uses solar power to remove salt from seawater to produce potable water and is made with concrete from local materials. This work addresses the lack of clean drinking water that is one of the most significant health issues in many countries around the world. (Phase I)
  • University of Florida students are designing a process to “harvest” essential crop nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from liquid waste while ensuring the final harvested nutrients are free of pharmaceuticals. They expect to produce a cheaper, renewable fertilizer that reduces the costs and harmful impacts of wastewater treatment. (Phase I)
  • Embry-Riddles Aeronautical University students are designing a foldable solar power water purification system that can fit into a backpack for easy transport for use after a disaster that affects the drinking water supply. (Phase II)

For a complete listing of all P3 teams for the year, click here. And if you’re in the Washington DC area, be sure to stop by and say “hi” to these passionate students!

About the Author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Iceland: A Renewable Energy Power House

By James Gentry

If you have an interest in renewable energy, then there is no better place to see it in action than in Iceland.  During the course of the 20th century, Iceland went from one of Europe’s smallest economies, dependent upon peat and imported coal for its energy, to a country with a very high standard of living where practically all energy is derived from renewable resources.

I recently spent two months working in Iceland as part of the Department of State’s Embassy Science Fellows program.  My assignment was with the Keilir Institute of Technology , the site of a former U.S. Naval Air Station and base of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  When the base was decommissioned in 2006, the Icelandic government converted the existing site and infrastructure into a university, flight academy, and a small business incubator.

Keilir’s goal is to produce highly trained professionals for the energy and technology industry.  Its first class of engineering technologists graduated in June of 2012.  As a new school, they found that they needed assistance in developing collaborative relationships with U.S. based universities and small businesses conducting research in renewable energy.

That’s where my assignment came in. I set up a series of interactive webinars between Keilir and EPA-funded entities that have renewable energy-related projects related.

The first webinar was with a team from Humboldt State University to discuss their micro hydroelectric mini grid systems research project. The project is supported by EPA’s P3 program, a student design competition for sustainability (read more at http://www.epa.gov/P3/).

The webinar resulted in a lively discussion between the Icelandic students and the students from Humboldt State University.  This was followed by a second webinar between Keilir and ACTA, Inc.  With contract support from EPA through the Small Business Innovation Research Program, ACTA, Inc. is working to improve the efficiency of geothermal heat pumps.

The webinars were a success.  Keilir has since developed a joint research application with Cooper Union in New York City related to geothermal heated gardens, and a new project on smart meters is under discussion with Humboldt State.

I did have a chance to get out of the classrooms and away from the computers to visit the most impressive evidence of Icelandic prowess in renewable energy –the  Svartsengi geothermal power plant, where water feeds  into the famous Blue Lagoon.  Whether you are traveling for work as I did, or for pleasure, no trip to Iceland is complete without visiting the Blue Lagoon, a pylsur (Icelandic hotdog) from Bæjarins beztu (far superior to its American counterpart, in my opinion), and some Icelandic skyr!

About the Author: James Gentry joined EPA in 1996 as a physical scientist.  He is currently the Director of the Peer Review Division in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  When he’s not being an Icelandophile, he’s an avid reader, and he’ll watch a documentary on just about anything.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Let’s Natuculture!

By Manny “The Mulch Hugger” Reyes

"The Mulch Hugger" in action.

For 20 years I have enjoyed working with awesome students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where I am making myself known as the ‘mulch hugger.’ 

I grew up in the Philippines totally unconcerned with nature.  I vividly remember my enjoyment in shooting beautiful tropical birds and collecting their eggs and my vision of converting forests into monoculture agriculture. 

Well, my passion has turned 180 degrees. Today I am working to promote the integration of natural systems into urban landscaping. 

Thanks to funding provided by EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) program, my students and I have began natuculture.  What’s “natuculture,” you ask? The term, coined at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCA&T), refers to any human-made system that mimics nature in “human disturbed landscapes,” such as your typical college campus.  We introduced the term at the 2011 EPA-P3 conference.

We ‘natucultured’ a typical lawn (that is a monoculture of turf grass) into a vibrant, chemical-free ecosystem with at least 150 flora and visited by multiple kinds of fauna.  I dare say that this place can be the coolest student hangout on campus.  Adjacent to it, the University recently razed a building and has designated the area to be a ‘green park,’ which we intend to landscape exclusively with native North Carolina flora. 

Image of "natucultural" landscape showing biodiversity

"Natucultured" landscape on campus.

We are actively spreading ‘natuculture’ in several K-12 campuses.  Yup!!!! We designed and built a raingarden in an elementary school and installed six rainharvesters in six high school campuses. We are now establishing biologically engineered experiments to help us learn how to improve soil health while producing chemical-free vegetables.  

Furthermore, we are developing lesson plans to integrate natuculture in K-12 science courses and organizing a natuculture scientific conference for high school students.  NCA&T faculty and students are actively partnering with K-12 faculty and are mentors to K-12 students.

About the Author: Guest blogger Manuel R. Reyes is a Professor of Biological Engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. He helped start Kingfisher Park, ‘a haven of biodiversity;’ in the Philippines, and works to advocate agroecology in Southeast Asia through agroforestry and conservation agriculture technologies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA Helps Lead the Way in Cleaning Up Stoves

By Katie Lubinsky

Cookstoves for testingIt kills approximately 1.9  million people each year, is the fourth worst overall environmental health risk in developing countries, and contributes to chronic illnesses including pneumonia, lung cancer and  cardiovascular disease. The source of such harmful health effects? Smoke from open fires and cookstoves used by people in developing countries.

EPA, as part of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, is helping to lead the way in testing cookstove technologies. Recently, I spoke with EPA’s Jim Jetter, the lead author on the most extensive, independent study of air pollutant emissions and energy efficiency on cookstoves done to date. Results of the study were published in the October issue of Environmental Science and Technology.

EPA researcher testing a cookstove.

I discovered that Jim’s research involved the testing of 22 cookstoves using a wide variety of fuels, such as biomass and wood products. His research team measured emissions of air pollutants including carbon monoxide and particles known to cause health effects. Researchers also tested the stoves for energy efficiency.

One question that popped in my head was, “Do cookstove emissions from other countries affect the United States?”  And it seems there is strong evidence from other studies that parts of the U.S. are affected by air pollution from Asia.  Cookstove emissions largely contribute to the formation of ‘brown clouds,’ over countries like Asia. These brown clouds can travel between continents and potentially cause health effects … but that’s not all.

Cookstove fuels release greenhouse gases and black carbon when burned, which contributes to climate change. In fact, about 20 percent of black carbon emissions worldwide come from cookstoves.

While research continues, EPA reaches out with a challenge to college students to design a better, more efficiently designed cookstove:

Our “People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3)” sustainable design competition has a category specifically addressing clean energy and cookstoves. Submit your ideas, and you could be awarded a grant of up to $15,000 to support concept development.  But hurry!  The deadline for applicants in the P3 competition is Dec. 11th. Get the details for how to apply for a P3 grant here: http://www.epa.gov/ncer/rfa/2013/2013_p3.html.

To read more about the recently-released study on clean cookstove, click here.

About the author: Katie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Fuel to the Future

University of California Riverside students have developed clean, renewable grid-independent energy for 1.6 billion people currently without the convenience of electricity as part of EPA’s P3 – People, Prosperity, and the Planet—Program, a competition for designing solutions for a sustainable future.

Through P3, they are getting quality hands-on experience that brings their classroom learning to life and may lead to real world applications.   The UCR students have created a model that produces efficient, affordable, and sustainable energy.  The bonus…..it releases zero emissions!

Want to learn about how their project works?  Go to EPA’s YouTube Channel at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDtHCKCqoS8&feature=relmfu

Interested in the P3 program in your future?  Go to http://www.epa.gov/p3/

Yvonne Gonzalez is a SCEP intern with the Air and Radiation Division in Region 5. She is currently pursuing a dual graduate degree at DePaul University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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P3 Winners Announced

By Aaron Ferster

This past weekend, as our string of bright, warm spring days gave way to the cold, driving rain of a classic Nor’easter roaring through the mid-Atlantic, some 300 students representing 45 design teams gathered under big white tents on the National Mall.

The students braved the elements to participate in the National Sustainable Design Expo and to showcase their projects aimed at protecting human health and advancing sustainability.

As we wrote about last week, the student teams were there to take part in EPA’s P3 student competition. Each showcased their design to a panel of judges made up of national experts, who then passed along evaluations to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Early Monday evening, the teams gathered in a big conference room in the warm confines of the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington DC to learn who would take home the coveted P3 awards.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson greets a P3 team.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson greets a P3 team.

15 university and college teams from across the country were named winners.

Selected projects include a foldable, solar-powered water purification system designed to fit within a backpack; a pilot scale system to convert trap grease from restaurants from a waste product into a fuel; and a “biohybrid” solar panel that taps a protein from spinach in place of rare metals to produce electricity.

For a complete list of the winning teams and their projects, check out the press release: EPA Awards More Than $1 Million to College Teams for Innovative Environmental Solutions.

In addition to the honor of winning the P3 award, each team also receives a grant of up to $90,000 to further develop their projects in order to bring their sustainable designs to the marketplace.

And now, with that exciting event wrapped up, we’re getting ready to share even more of our science this weekend at the USA Science & Engineering Festival.

EPA researchers and others will be on hand to answer questions and conduct demonstrations about how EPA uses science and engineering to protect human health and the planet. (Keep an eye on this blog for more about what we’ll be sharing).

So if you’ll be in Washington, DC this weekend, be sure to come by booth #1745 to say hello. The Festival is free and open to the public. It is even going to be indoors, so you don’t have to worry about the weather!

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the editor of It All Starts with Science, and a frequent contributor.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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P3 Project Brings Improved Power to Rural Bhutan

Editors Note: This week we’ve asked members of P3 teams to share information about the sustainable design projects they’ve been working on to showcase at this year’s National Sustainable Design Expo.

By Meg Harper

Village scale micro-hydroelectric mini-grids provide renewable electricity to thousands of communities in remote locations throughout the world.   While promising, many of these systems are plagued by a common problem: brownouts occur frequently in the mornings and evenings during times of peak demand.  The lowered voltage that characterizes a brownout causes lights to dim, televisions to flicker and electrical appliances, particularly rice cookers, to not work properly.

For more than two years our group of Humboldt State University students and advisors has been working on the design of a “GridShare” device intended to reduce the occurrence of brownouts on these power-limited mini-electric grids.

In 2010, after winning a grant through the EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Student Design Contest, a few of us traveled to Bhutan to assess the village of Rukubji as a site to perform a pilot installation of our GridShares.

Image of author and residents discussing gridshare. After receiving enthusiastic support from the Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC), the Department of Energy of Bhutan and the residents of Rukubji, the team worked to refine the design of our GridShares and arrange the logistics for the installation.

Following two years of design work requiring multiple prototypes and many revisions, the few months before the installation yielded a frenzy of GridShare assembly, testing and shipping.  Sponsorships from local and regional businesses helped to reduce the cost of manufacturing, while many volunteers helped the team finish the assembly and testing of each GridShare to assure its success in the field.

To accompany the GridShare installation, we also created a series of colorful bilingual posters and pamphlets to help the residents of Rukubji learn how to interact with the GridShare and better manage their limited electric system.

All of these preparations paid off! In July of 2011, with the help of electricians from the BPC, a constant pack of helpful children and countless cups of butter tea, we successfully installed 89 GridShares: one in every home in the village.  Residents report being able to consistently cook their rice, and say they are appreciative of the GridShare indicator lights that tell them when adequate power is available.

I, along with all of the students involved in the project, have gained a first-hand education in circuit design, low-cost manufacturing, grant writing, data analysis, development of educational materials and international project coordination.

But beyond all of these benefits, the opportunity to experience the rich Bhutanese culture and develop friendships with engineers, teachers and farmers halfway across the globe, has been invaluable.

About the Author: Guest blogger Meg Harper is a graduate research assistant at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Developing a Low-Cost Water Filter

Editors Note: This week we’ve asked members of P3 teams to share information about the sustainable design projects they’ve been working on to showcase at this year’s National Sustainable Design Expo.

In August of 2009, our P3team traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota Tribe and some 28,000 people. The purpose of our trip was to sample water to see if it still reflected conditions reflected in U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) report from the 1990s that found much of the reservation’s groundwater was contaminated with arsenic and uranium.  Levels of the two contaminants at that time were found to exceed EPA’s maximum containment limits (MCLs).

What we found was in line with the USGS report: 35% of the private wells we tested contained arsenic above the MCL; 6% contained elevated uranium levels. That’s where our P3 project comes in. We are developing a low cost filter that can remove both arsenic and uranium from water.

While there are existing filters that can do the work, they are far from ideal in places like Pine Ridge. For one thing, current filters—primarily based on reverse osmosis (RO) technology—are very expensive. In addition, they require constant maintenance and upkeep.

Our solution looks to provide a cost effective alternative that requires minimal maintenance, can be maintained by local residents, and can spark prosperity in the community. To accomplish this, we’ve developed a filter that uses bone char as its main ingredient.

Cattle bone that is used to make the char is readily available as a waste product on the reservation, and our tests show that our filter effectively removes the contaminants. After performing a life cycle analysis, we predict that after 10 years of use, the bone char filter will outperform a standard RO filter in eight out of nine environmental categories.

The only downside so far is that our current prototype is very large. So, we are now working to reduce the size, which will cut the cost of the filter as well.

While we are working on improving our filter, efforts are underway to inform the Pine Ridge community about the issue of water contamination, and to develop an educational program in partnership with the Oglala Lakota College (OLC) to further understanding of the need for clean drinking water on the reservation.

About the Author: Brett Llewellyn, a student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is working to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. He wishes to continue applying his coursework towards the efforts of making water clean and accessible to everyone.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Natuculture: Biomimicry in Urban Landscapes

Editor’s Note: This week we’ve asked members of P3 teams to share information about the sustainable design projects they’ve been working on to showcase at this weekend’s National Sustainable Design Expo.

Thanks to EPA’s People, Prosperity, and Planet (P3) student design contest, multigenerational teams of students from different disciplines have been designing and implementing natuculture (pronounced nā-chew-culture) systems on the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (NCA&T) campus since 2008.

Typical college landscape

Before

What’s “natuculture,” you ask? The term, coined here in NCA&T, refers to any human-made system that mimics nature in “human disturbed landscapes,” such as your typical college campus. The term is derived from ‘nature culture.’

For the students’ project, they converted a conventional lawn located on a highly trafficked area in campus near the football stadium, into a natuculture system. Instead of a lawn, it’s now a living display of a vibrant, biologically diverse, multifunctional, and ecologically complex “water and carbon dioxide harvester system” that requires close to zero use of artificial chemicals.

Features of the system include a green roofed porch, a rain garden, a rainwater harvester, a solar powered bird pond, bird feeders, and at least 50 species of flora, including edible fruits such as figs, grapes, and apples.

An array of birds—American gold and red finches, titmice, Carolina chickadees, mourning doves, hawks, downy wood peckers, and cardinals—are frequent visitors. Other fauna, insects and arthropods that feed at the site, include bumblebees, spiders, butterflies, squirrels and a ground hog known as ‘Arnold.’

Natuculture landscape

After

Rainwater from the roof is directed to a rainharvester, which serves as the main source of irrigation for the site. Any overflow is directed to a rain garden that soaks it up before it can turn into runoff, recharging groundwater.

The green roofed porch is illustrating urban heat reduction through the use of such ‘living’ roofs.

In addition, 32 six-by-three-foot raised vegetable beds, which we call “oasis sofas,” were added to the site, part of a replicated scientific study that compares conservation agriculture with conventional methods to produce organic vegetables in urban areas.

Conservation agriculture mimics a forest ecosystem, and the practice has been shown to provide a host of benefits: rainwater harvesting, healthier soil, increased crop yields, carbon sequestration, improve soil and water quality, less erosion, less reliance on fossil fuel and labor, and significant decreases in the use of artificial chemicals by providing natural fertilizers and disease and pest control.

This coming weekend you can come see a demonstration and ask the students about our natuculture project as we join a host of other EPA-supported student P3 teams at the National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall.

About the Author: Guest blogger Manuel R. Reyes is a Professor of Biological Engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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