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EPA Grant to Help Student-led Team Develop Low-cost Method to Remove Lead from Drinking Water

By Keith Pierce

Inspired by the water crisis in Flint, Mich., a student-led team of civil and environmental engineers at Old Dominion University recently received a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for research to improve the safety of drinking water.

The People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) grants program is part of more than $463,000 in funding for 31 Phase I university student teams across the nation. ODU's student-led team will receive $15,000 for its work to develop sustainable technologies to solve current environmental and public health challenges.

Part of a two-phase competition, the P3 grant will allow successful teams to compete for additional research funds.

Using a filter with a substance called biochar, the ODU team is researching a natural, cost-effective method for filtering poisonous heavy metals from water.

"Our idea is to develop a low-cost biochar water filter that people can make themselves from scratch utilizing household materials and install it without any professional help," said Pushpita Kumkum, an environmental engineering student and teaching assistant. "If an emergency like the water crisis in Flint, Mich. were to happen again, we'd want people to feel confident that their children are not being exposed to a high toxicity of lead that can cause brain defects or developmental delay."

Biochar is essentially charcoal, and is made in the same manner. However, rather than the wood chips typically used to make charcoal, biochar is made from biomass decomposed in high temperatures. It is believed to be a cost-effective substitute to activated carbon in lead adsorption because of its structure, irregular surface and high surface to volume ratio.

The proposed biochar filter is an easy-to-use system installed in residential faucets. It is also effective in natural water conditions and does not require any pH adjustment. This user-friendly household water filter could be particularly beneficial to communities such as Flint, Mich., that are plagued by lead contamination in drinking water.

"Our work shows that biochar can remove metals such as lead, cadmium and uranium from water," said Sandeep Kumar, ODU associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Biomass Research Laboratory. "We also believe this project provides a good outreach opportunity for educating the public, especially school students in the local community."

According to the EPA, heavy metal contamination in drinking water is a growing concern due to its severe health effects in humans, especially children. Children exposed to lead in drinking water may suffer damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, and experience learning disabilities, impaired growth and hearing, impaired formation and function of blood cells as well as other adverse health effects.

The ODU team, along with other Phase 1 teams, will share their research at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., on April 7-8. If the team successfully makes it to Phase 2, they will be awarded $75,000 to further develop their Phase 1 research.

"This year's P3 teams are applying their classroom learning to create valuable, cutting-edge technologies," said EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. "This next generation of scientists is designing sustainable solutions that will help protect public health and the environment and ensure America continues to lead the world in innovation and science for decades to come."

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