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Clarkson students celebrate Earth Day in D.C.

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POTSDAM - Three teams of Clarkson University students celebrated Earth Day on April 22 by participating in the eighth annual EPA National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The event recognizes the important aspects of sustainability through commitment to people, prosperity and the planet (P3).

Clarkson’s “Garbage Juice 4 Engine Use” team presented their analysis of the feasibility of growing algae on nutrients recovered from landfill leachate and transforming it into biodiesel. They received an honorable mention award in the energy category.

Through a partnership with the Development Authority of the North Country (DANC) Landfill in Rodman, N.Y., the team completed bench-scale preliminary research and engineering, environmental and social analyses.

The goal of the project was to use two waste byproducts of the landfill — heat and leachate — to grow algae, from which the algal cells’ fats can be extracted and converted into a renewable biodiesel for use in heavy equipment used at the landfill.

“Using these two types of wastes does a few things,” said senior environmental engineering honors student Bethann Parmelee of Waverly, who has been conducting research on the project for more than two years. “First, it utilizes a product otherwise destined for disposal. Second, it uses energy already being produced at the facility. And third, it creates a fuel source that will help decrease the facility’s dependence on petroleum, ultimately saving the facility money.”

The other two teams had received $75,000 EPA P3 Phase II grants at the 2010 P3 Expo that enabled them to design, build and test novel systems. These teams showed off their project results, but did not compete for additional awards.

The project “Growing Lettuce in the Snow,” resulted in the construction and operation of a cold-climate greenhouse on Clarkson’s campus. It uses innovative system components to address some of the barriers that cold, dark winters pose for greenhouse operations in Northern New York.

You can see the project on G4 TV’s “Attack of the Show” program at http://www.g4tv.com/videos/58377/how-to-turn-waste-into-energy .

“The EPA was especially impressed that the students who designed and built the entire system have also started a company to sell the innovative aeroponic growing systems and install significantly larger systems,” faculty advisor Professor Susan Powers said.

The company, Blue Sphere Industries, has received a loan to start its business in Clarkson’s business incubator in Peyton Hall. They will install a system that is ten times the size of the pilot system.

The third project included the design and construction of an anaerobic digester for small farms at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Farm in Canton. Digesters at large farms use manure collected by alley scrapers. While this material can be easily pumped into the digester, small farms often use hay bedding, which results in hard-packed manure that cannot be pumped.

In addition, smaller farms in New York are more diverse, which means that different types of waste materials are available that could be digested for energy recovery. However, technologies are lacking for these small scales.

The Clarkson team has successfully developed a process that can use manure at the high solids content found at very small farms to generate biogas continuously throughout the winter months. Results from an economic analysis suggest that the process is economically viable for small farms, allowing the majority of farmers to gain access to this technology.

Student representatives from all of the teams also had an opportunity to explain their projects and their importance in Northern New York to staff members in the offices of Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, and of Representatives Bill Owens, Richard Hanna and Paul Tonko.

The three interdisciplinary teams of students were advised by Powers, Prof. Stefan Grimberg and Prof. Michael Twiss as a part of the University’s SPEED (Student Projects for Engineering Experience and Design) program, one of the Wallace H. Coulter School of Engineering hallmark initiatives, exemplifying Clarkson’s “defy convention” approach to education.

SPEED promotes multidisciplinary, project-based learning opportunities for more than 350 undergraduates annually. Projects involve engineering design, analysis, and fabrication. In addition, students learn real-world business skills, such as budget management, effective teamwork, and communications skills.

Support for the EPA P3 competition includes more than 40 partners in the federal government, industry, and scientific and professional societies.

For more information on the EPA’s P3 program, visit http://www.epa.gov/p3 .

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