When the four members of Montana Tech’s environmental engineering design team arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, earlier this month to take part in WERC Environmental Design Contest, they found they were missing something very important: the biofilm electrode reactor they were planning to enter into the competition.
“We shipped our reactor down, but it actually got lost,” says team member Tylar Holden. “So we didn’t even think we were going to be competing.”
Then, when the reactor did finally show up, just in the nick of time, they found it had been damaged during shipping. Luckily, they had also shipped themselves a backup.
With that second-choice reactor, the team didn’t just compete but also won the contest’s highly competitive open-task category as well as its prestigious Innovation in Sustainability Award.
In so doing, the team comprised of Montana Tech seniors Holden, Brett Jonson, Emma Rott and Nels Thorsrud beat out teams from universities located across the United States, many of them much larger than — and flush with more resources than — the group from Butte.
The Tech team has been working on their project since the beginning of the school year, when they got together and decided to tackle an ambitious problem for their senior design project: eutrophication.
According to Jonson, eutrophication often begins when excess amounts of fertilizer is used in agricultural production. Rains then tend to wash those excess nutrients into both groundwater and surface water, where they cause algal blooms and other types of growths that consume large amounts of oxygen. This, in turn, deprives fish and other plants and animals of that oxygen.
The result, Jonson says, can be catastrophic for streams: “It completely destroys the ecosystem.”
And it’s a problem that’s getting worse over time.
While methods exist for combating eutrophication, many of them rely on adding organic compounds to deal with the excessive and harmful nutrients. But in remote locations, such as in agricultural fields, the notion of adding organic compounds to streams is impractical.
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The central innovation of the Tech team was to design a system that relies on electricity produced with solar panels rather than on organic additives to stop eutrophication.
“The microbes take in the electrons — or the electricity — and pass that on to nitrate, which is the compound that’s causing all these problems, and turns it into nitrogen gas, which is what’s all around us right now,” Jonson explains. “So it takes the contaminant, treats it, and turns it into [harmless] nitrogen gas.”
Once they had their idea, the team had to execute it. That didn’t only involve high-level math and science but also the hard work of cutting, drilling and assembling acrylic sheets to fashion the reactor itself. They even had to grow the microbes that the reactor uses.
“We basically did everything,” Holden says.
Daqian Jiang, the team’s faculty advisor and an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Tech, said he was “really impressed” that this group of undergraduates tackled such a large problem with such an innovative solution.
“In my experience, this kind of project is usually done by doctoral students, so, technically, it’s really challenging,” Jiang says.
Evidently, the WERC judges were also impressed by the team’s project and their presentation.
Winning two prestigious awards was a just reward for their hard work, according to the team.
“We dedicated basically our whole senior year to this thing,” says Rott. “It felt good to see something good come of what we put so much effort and time into. These microbes performed.”