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Environmental Engineering PhD Student Wins EPA Award, Finds Payoff Is in Social Impact


Doctoral student Miguel Pelaez’s work in solar disinfection generates powerful improvements in the quality of life for people in developing countries.

Date: 6/9/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Lisa Britton and Ashley Kempher, photojournalists

UC ingot   University of Cincinnati engineering researchers, with collaborators from Ireland and Mexico, are studying novel methods for use in point-of-use water disinfection in isolated rural zones in Mexico. The students are also documenting health benefits associated with drinking the treated water.

Graduate student Miguel Pelaez and his advisor, Dionysios Dionysiou, during the 2009 EPA P3 Expo and Competition held in Washington D.C.
Graduate student Miguel Pelaez and his advisor, Dionysios Dionysiou, during the 2009 EPA P3 Expo and Competition held in Washington D.C. (Photo provided.)

With the “P3” award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), UC doctoral student Miguel Pelaez and Professor Dionysios Dionysiou presented their project at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“P3” stands for “People, Prosperity and the Planet.” The competition was established by the USEPA to benefit people, promote prosperity and protect the planet “through innovative designs to address challenges to sustainability in both the developed and developing world.”

“Everything related to sustainability — rain and stormwater management, sustainable houses, solar panels — things like this,” says Miguel.

Miguel played a crucial role on the team. In addition to being a third-year environmental engineering student in Dionysiou’s UC lab, he is also an alumnus of the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla (for his five year’s bachelor’s degree), having grown up in Mexico. (The third collaborating institution was Ireland’s University of Ulster.)

“My advisor at Universidad de las Américas is now my collaborator,” says Miguel. One senses a quiet feeling of delight as he says this, but he eschews any personal accolades. “My research was the link between UC and UDLAP.”

Miguel Pelaez, left, and Professor Dionysios Dionysiou at work in their lab in 2008.
Professor Dionysiou said that Miguel's involvement was critical for the success of the project.

Miguel’s personal approach might have played a role, too.

“The student’s involvement is critical for the success of this project,” Dionysiou says. “Miguel has demonstrated excellent skills, dedication and passion to obtain innovative approaches to solve a real environmental problem. He has managed to learn from other disciplines and apply his expertise to the project.”

About the UC Team’s Project
“We are making new materials that can improve solar disinfection for drinking water purposes,” Miguel explains. “It works because people in developing countries can apply it at the point of use, household-scale, at a low cost. It does not rely on a large municipal water supply or an industrial treatment facility.”

Other treatment alternatives might not be cost effective or feasible in developing countries where water is scarce or the government is not to be trusted to deliver it to its citizens.

“The project focused on the improvement of solar disinfection (“SODIS”) performance for water purification in developing countries by incorporating novel visible light-activated nanostructured titanium dioxide photocatalysts for water purification in developing countries,” adds Professor Dionysios Dionysiou. This new, improved process is then called “Enhanced Photocatalytic Solar Disinfection” or ENPHOSODIS.

“SODIS is a simple, environmentally friendly and low-cost point-of-use treatment technology for drinking water purification in developing countries,” Dionysiou explains. “However, bacterial re-growth after short storage (24 hours) of SODIS-treated water has been observed. Only a few studies have examined possible improvements to SODIS and its sustainable application for water supply to small isolated rural populations.”

Miguel, Dionysiou and then-doctoral student Emily Riley.
Miguel, Dionysiou and fellow doctoral student Emily Riley in 2008.

So in simple solar disinfection, using the ultraviolet portion of the light spectrum kills certain pathogens in the water. This is what might be called “classic” solar disinfection. One step above that was using solar concentrators. But UV light represents only five percent of the full spectrum. Then adding titanium broadened that to absorbing half the light spectrum, which means that 10 times the amount of light is going into the water to kill the pathogens, plus other organic materials like pesticides and viruses. This is where the University of Ulster came in. They are also the titanium dioxide experts, having conducted similar work in Nigeria and South Africa.

The team also worked on the development of a simple and inexpensive dosimeter to measure the solar flux during disinfection. Normally the amount of additive to use would be determined using a radiometer, but for families in developing countries, radiometers would not be practical. So a dosimeter approach was developed.

“We determined the decolorization of a dye as a parameter to visually determine the energy requirements to obtain safe drinking water during ENPHOSODIS,” Dionysiou explains. “This an important practical issue in field studies and in the daily use of the technology in isolated communities, since it will allow the potential users to safely determine whether or not the solar disinfection process has achieved the desirable disinfection efficiency” (such as on a cloudy day or during raining season).

“It’s not always going to be the same intensity one day to the next,” Miguel adds. “You can’t tell them to run it for a certain amount of time. Today it might be an hour; tomorrow it might be two hours. So you need something that the average person can see. So with a dye running in parallel to the system, they know they should run it until the color of the dye is gone.”

Miguel Pelaez in his lab.
Miguel sees his work as having an environmental and a social impact.

Miguel knows that the quality of the water is still not what we in the United States have, but it is such a vast improvement over what people in many poor countries are accustomed to that it is a major improvement in quality of life.

“UNICEF and the World Health Organization have advocated such treatments that are cost effective for individual households,” he says. “It’s a matter of poor hygiene and poor sanitation. We educate them and let them know what we are doing and why. So there is a social science aspect to it, too. We are not just environmental engineers. This is a good effort.”

Miguel also points out that the point-of-use purification systems that they are developing can be used in times of responding to emergencies and catastrophic assault on water systems through such things as hurricanes, floods and war — any time that water has been compromised.

“Two million people dying every year from diarrhea, that’s a lot — you know?” he says. “If we can cut that to one million, that’s something. That’s impact. That’s meaningful.”

About the P3 Awards
Teams of undergraduate and/or graduate students from colleges and universities across the United States were eligible to apply for the grants. Collaboration and partnerships with colleges and universities outside the United States were permitted (and up to 40 percent of the grant can be contracted to an international partner), but only U.S. institutions were eligible to apply. Up to $75,000 is given to the best student designs, providing an opportunity to further these designs, implement them in the field and move them to the marketplace.

The P3 Award competition has two phases. First, student teams competed for $10,000 grants. Recipients used the money to research and develop their design projects during the academic year. The competition began with the receipt of Phase I grants at the start of the academic year. Then in April, all teams submitted their final reports from Phase I as well as their proposals for Phase II. The P3 judging panel — convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) — evaluated the written documents prior to the National Sustainable Design Expo in the spring, when all teams brought their designs, prototypes, and other exhibition materials to the National Mall in Washington, DC.

'Two million people dying every year from diarrhea, that’s a lot ... If we can cut that to one million, that’s something. That’s impact. That’s meaningful.'
'Two million people dying every year from diarrhea, that’s a lot ... If we can cut that to one million, that’s something. That’s impact. That’s meaningful.'

“The competition in April was a poster presentation at a three-day expo during the same time as Earth Week,” says Miguel. “It was also open to the public, so we had to answer questions from both experts and non-experts, both general and very technical questions.” The team was evaluated on both the presentation and the report that was submitted by a series of judges using a set judging schedule that were available prior to the competition.

Scores from the written summary documents as well as the presentations on the Mall were combined into a final overall score for each P3 team. Based on these scores, the AAAS made recommendations to the EPA about which teams should receive EPA's P3 Awards and the opportunity for Phase II funding. Although Miguel’s project was not chosen to continue into Phase II, he considers it an honor to get as far as he did.


Further Reading

EPA Grant Makes for a Better Environment
A University of Cincinnati researcher studies methods for removing toxins from water with a new grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Thirst Quenching: Engineer makes water quality his mission (UC Research, May 2009)

Miguel's Abstract

University of Cincinnati (SU833942): Enhanced Photocatalytic Solar Disinfection of Water as Effective Intervention Against Waterborne Diarrheal Diseases in Developing Countries University of Cincinnati students and collaborators from Ireland and Mexico are studying novel nanotechnological methods for use in photocatalytic point-of-use reactors for water disinfection in isolated rural zones in Mexico.