UC students win environmental challenge competition

Engineering students proposed an innovative solution toward carbon neutrality

A team of University of Cincinnati students won first place in the virtual Environmental Challenge International Competition hosted by the Air and Waste Management Association (AWMA). For the challenge, the students were tasked with proposing effective solutions to a simulated environmental problem based on real-world events. 

The challenge focused on developing a resource plan for the regional Florida utility industry to support the path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve zero carbon by 2050. Teams addressed issues related to the environment, energy, government, transportation and health in their proposal. 

“The whole concept of being given a platform to come up with and present a solution to a real-world environmental problem really intrigued me,” said team leader Rachel Tumbleson, a 2020 UC graduate and current environmental engineering master’s student. “The challenge prompts are technically hypothetical but are actual pressing issues the world is discussing and trying to solve today. Getting the chance to really dive into the details of how we could actually achieve carbon neutrality in utility scale electricity production was really fun and also challenging.”

Getting the chance to really dive into the details of how we could actually achieve carbon neutrality in utility scale electricity production was really fun and also challenging.

Rachel Tumbleson UC environmental engineering graduate student

In its project proposal, the UC team suggested a mix of modular nuclear and solar energy paired with lithium-ion battery storage, biomass and offshore wind. 

“This would meet energy demand while also achieving the two main emission goals of the project: cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030 and becoming carbon neutral by 2050,” Tumbleson said. 

After submitting their proposal at the end of May, all competing teams are given the “tweak” — a last-minute project complication designed to mimic what happens in real-life projects.

In June, the teams presented virtually over the course of two days to a panel of judges. The University of Cincinnati team, dubbed the Bearcat Environmental Solutions Team (BEST), comprised Tumbleson as team leader; environmental engineering undergraduate students Esther Hughes, Sophia Pedigo and Jackson “Jagger” Vetter; and chemical engineering undergraduate Kevin Johnson. Pedigo and Johnson were both part of last year’s team that won second place in the competition. Team advisor is Mingming Lu, UC professor of environmental engineering and faculty advisor of the UC student chapter AWMA. 

“I think our team taking the risk to suggest modular nuclear — we were the only team to do so — had a lot to do with our team winning. It's a very controversial topic, and I was quite nervous suggesting it, especially since we were presenting at such an environmentally conscious convention. We made sure to speak on the advantages of modular nuclear energy over traditional nuclear energy and most other utility scale sources of energy,” Tumbleson said. “Our team also did an amazing job thinking on the spot and articulating answers to the questions from the judges.”

Featured image at top of solar panels. Photo/Lincoln Electric Systems/Unsplash.

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