This story appears in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Mines magazine.
Environmental science and engineering graduate student Erin Neil is working on an independent study with civil and environmental engineering professors Dr. Tzahi Cath and Dr. Pei Xu on developing cost-effective and environmentally sound technologies to increase the quality of water from water waste.
“We are trying to use waste streams from one water treatment process to treat another stream that might be used beneficially,” Cath said.
Neil is comparing the removal efficiencies of different types of sludge and evaluating the potential for microbiological contaminants to leach from the sludge to the treated water. The group has collected samples from Golden Drinking Water Treatment Plant, El Paso Water Utilities and other drinking water treatment plants. Neil uses the EPA Membrane Filtration Method to test fluid samples for microbiological contamination.
“We have seen promising adsorption results and expect to better understand the feasibility of re-using this water,” Neil said.
The project is part of a large effort with The National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center Program, ReNUWit Engineering Research Center. It is part of a collaborative study among Mines, New Mexico State University and the industrial partner, El Paso Water Utilities.
The researchers use sludge from drinking water treatment plants to treat reverse osmosis (RO) waste. RO waste is made of concentrated brine, which contains minerals, organics and metals that are rejected by the RO membranes. Treating this concentrate could provide additional water supplies to the public, and reduce the environmental impacts from discharging concentrate laden with salt and toxic heavy metals.
“Treatment of reverse osmosis concentrate can convert the waste stream to additional water for beneficial use, such as irrigation, that is otherwise scarce in arid climates,” Xu said. “Removal of toxic contaminants from RO concentrate will allow beneficial use of the water and protection of environment.”
Although several disposal methods are available, they can be associated with high processing costs, constrained by permitting, environmental impacts and other limitations.
“It can be a challenge with respect to regulations that surround deep well injection,” Neil said. “It can be expensive to dispose of that concentrate.”
Kathleen Morton, Communications Coordinator / 303-273-3088 / KMorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations / 303-273-3541 / KGilbert@mines.edu
Researchers at Colorado School of Mines took delivery of the world’s first Geothermic Fuel Cell (GFC) on Aug. 5, 2013.
Designed and built by Delphi, headquartered in Rochester, NY, for IEP Technology, of Parker, Colo., the GFC will efficiently generate 4.5 kW of electricity from natural gas fuel.
Its real value lies in the heat that it liberates while generating this electricity -- scientists and engineers seek to harness this heat to recover unconventional oil. This electricity comes as a useful and valuable byproduct of the oil-recovery process.
In partnership with IEP Technology and Delphi, students, engineers, and faculty will characterize the thermal and electrical performance of the geothermic fuel cell at the Colorado Fuel Cell Center laboratory on the Mines campus.
The solid-oxide fuel cells packaged within the GFC operate at high temperature (nearly 750 ºC) to convert natural gas into electricity and heat. When implemented, clusters of GFCs will be placed into the earth within oil shale formations for oil recovery. GFCs present a potentially transformative technology for accessing the world’s vast oil-shale reserves, which are estimated at 4.8 trillion barrels worldwide, in an environmentally responsible manner.
“This privately funded research and development project leverages the past investments in infrastructure made by Colorado School of Mines and federal agencies in the Colorado Fuel Cell Center. Such university-industrial partnerships are common at Mines, and create unique learning experiences for both our students and faculty, while answering important questions facing our industrial partners in bringing such technologies to market,” said Dr. Neal Sullivan, Mines associate professor of mechanical engineering.
To learn more about geothermic fuel cells, visit the IEP Technologies website: http://www.iepm.com/
Learn more about the Colorado Fuel Cell Center at www.coloradofuelcellcenter.org.
In the center of a clear plastic tub, small rocks formed a mound. With sixth graders gathered around the tub, Lyndsey Wright poured cool water over the rock mound. Next she poked small holes in a paper cup, put some blue food coloring in the bottom, and set the cup in the corner of the tub. Quickly she poured hot water into the cup. And the students observed. Then they got their own tubs and supplies to reverse the experiment with warm water over the rock mound and cold water in the cup. They observed, compared and discussed the experiments.
A textbook could have provided an explanation of how mountains affect climate, but this was interactive. This was fun.
Wright is pursuing a master’s degree in applied mathematics at Mines. She is focused on a numerical method for solving Poisson’s Equation for her research project. And she also says she likes doing “nerdy lessons with kids.” Last year, funded by the NSF’s GK-12 Learning Partnerships grant, Wright worked with a middle school science and math teacher. This year, funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, she is working with a kindergarten teacher to give children an early introduction to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Kelly Lundstrom is a master’s student in applied statistics. Her research is related to assessment in education, specifically with the Bechtel Initiative, and she works with Mines Professor Barbara Moskal on assessing data from the program. For the past year and a half, she worked in an elementary school classroom where one of her favorite lessons was a raisin race, teaching students that matter exists as solids, liquids and gases and can change from one state to another by heating and cooling. She also co-ran an after-school science club where students completed engineering design projects. “My favorite part was seeing how excited the students got every time I presented something cool related to STEM,” said Lundstrom.
Funded by grants from the Bechtel Foundation and the National Science Foundation (NSF), kindergarten through eighth grade teachers, Mines faculty and Mines graduate students work together to develop problem-centered, interdisciplinary learning experiences for K-8 students in Adams County District 50, Adams County District 12, Denver Public Schools and Englewood Schools. Mines leads a two-week summer workshop focused on mathematical, scientific and engineering content, as well as instructional techniques, for the teachers and graduate students. Then throughout the following school year, the graduate students provide assistance to the teachers in their classrooms.
“Every week elementary and middle school students interact with Mines students – great role models who like science and math and want to work in a STEM field,” said Moskal, who directs the Trefny Institute and the Center for Assessment of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Mines. Her research group examines the effectiveness of existing and new STEM programs and asks: How do you capture the impact of outreach programs on students’ learning and attitudes?
One thing Moskal has learned is students want to see the usefulness of STEM subjects. They are motivated when they realize how STEM can benefit their lives and the lives of others. So practical applications are an important element of Mines’ STEM programs, which also include the Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (REMRSEC) K-12 Education Outreach.
Supported by the Bechtel Foundation, BNSF Foundation, ECA Foundation, Northrup Grumman, NSF, Shell Oil Company and The Denver Foundation, this program provides Adams County District 50 and other teachers at the summer workshop with age appropriate lesson plans on energy basics, solar energy, hydrogen and energy efficiency. The Engineering Research Center for Re-Inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure at Mines also partners with Adams County District 50 to help teachers create compelling lessons and activities for their students during the summer workshop.
The American Society for Engineering Education has honored the Mines programs as “Best K-12 Partnerships” for two consecutive years, and the programs are growing, reaching more teachers and students with increasingly innovative, practical and effective approaches to STEM education. Serving the STEM pipeline from kindergarten to career, Mines is helping the nation build a highly skilled, competitive workforce.
Physics for Students with Dyslexia
The Rocky Mountain Camp for Dyslexics is Mines’ newest STEM partner. The American Physical Society will fund “Children with Disabilities: Physics Outreach to Dyslexic Students,” a grant proposed by Moskal and Craig Taylor, REMRSEC director. They will direct the development and delivery of instructional modules in physics for K-6 students. The modules, involving 10 hours of hands-on physics lessons, will be tested on 40 students at the five-week summer camp held in Indian Hills, Colo.
“Dyslexia does not impair students’ scientific and engineering reasoning,” explained Moskal. “In fact, some researchers believe that dyslexic students have enhanced capabilities in science.”
Graduate student Lyndsey Wright has helped in the past with the science unit of the camp. “It is really just a lot of fun,” she said. “It allows me the freedom to do the coolest experiments I can possibly think of with a group of kids who genuinely enjoy and have an aptitude for science.”
By Todd Neff
Forests across the Mountain West have gone orange and faded to gray. Since about the turn of the millennium, the mountain pine beetle’s appetite for lodgepole has killed off some four million acres of trees in Colorado and Wyoming alone. That the larvae of an insect the size of a grain of rice can bring such destruction is in itself a wonder of nature.
The changes go far beyond appearance, and while questions about the effects of so many dead trees on forest fires may be the most obvious, some of the beetles’ biggest impacts lie downstream. Pine beetles are shrinking the snowpack, hastening runoff and parching summer soil. The bugs have affected everything from the molecular habits of soil metals to the makeup of soil microbes. They have changed the chemistry of forest earth and increased the loads of carcinogens flowing through water treatment plants.
It’s more than a provincial concern of cabin dwellers and ski condo owners. Mountain runoff into the Colorado and Platte rivers alone sustains 30 million people and 1.8 million acres of irrigated farmland. With a warming climate, the deep freezes that once killed off pine beetles will be fewer, threatening more frequent, longer lasting epidemics affecting the region in ways science is only beginning to grasp. But science will soon catch up. A Mines-led team of hydrologists, microbiologists, geochemists, numerical modelers and social scientists is sharpening the picture of pine beetle impacts below a given dead tree and connecting how those changes trickle out to watersheds and the people who depend on them.
A five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation grant and $375,000 in Colorado state matching funds are fueling the effort. Mines Associate Professor Reed Maxwell, who specializes in hydrological modeling, serves as principal investigator. His Mines office is big and sparse. Its notable features include a high-end road bike outfitted with commuter lights, a wall clock whose arms at noon point to the cube root of 1728, and a 28-square-foot whiteboard, mostly empty on this day.
“The water quality in, say, Lake Granby has a lot to do with a watershed area that’s heavily beetle impacted,” Maxwell said. “We want to move from tree to plot to hillslope to watershed scale. That’s one of the big tasks in our grant, and we’re developing the models from scratch. They aren’t really out there.”
There are plenty of hypotheses, supported — but also contradicted — by a growing number of studies. Combined, the story goes something like this: Pine beetles kill trees, which drop their needles and load the soil with carbon as they break down. Their denuded branches let more snow into the ground, but they also stop less sunlight and block less wind, accelerating melting and runoff. The water moves through the hillslope and watershed faster. That influences how fast it reacts chemically, which in turn affects carbon balance, metal absorption and microbial makeup. At larger scales, the flow paths and speeds of rivulets, creeks and rivers change, too. The sum of the impacts shifts water quality, quantity and timing to new equilibriums, Maxwell said.
But no one knows for sure, which is why the team of eight faculty, eight graduate students and two postdoctoral researchers from Mines and Colorado State University has much to do.
If recent studies are any indication, the pine beetle plot will have many twists. Mines hydrological engineering PhD student Kristin Mikkelson spent three summers doing field work in Pennsylvania Gulch near Breckenridge and Keystone Gulch, focused on testing surface waters for copper and zinc. Dissolved organic carbon, more abundant with all the fallen pine needles, latches onto metals and keeps them mobile, boosting their soil concentrations and, one would think, the volume of metals flowing in surface waters. But while soil concentrations of metals have indeed been higher, Mikkelson said, “We’re not seeing it in the surface water.”
Another curiosity relates to municipal water quality. In a separate Mikkelson-led study, published in Nature Climate Change in October 2012, she and Mines colleagues reported that higher concentrations of organic carbon from pine needle pulses react with chlorine-based disinfectants in water treatment plants and produce more carcinogenic disinfectant byproducts. The study compared water treatment plants in five pine-beetle-impacted watersheds with four controls and linked increases in disinfectant byproducts with the degree of pine beetle infestation. The surprise, Mikkelson said, was that one class of disinfectant byproducts, known as trihalomethanes, spiked while others, haloacetic acids, didn’t.
“When we saw the jump in only the one, it was clear that the pine beetle epidemic is not only changing the amount of organic carbon, but also its composition,” she said.
Mikkelson is following up with experiments in which she percolates artificial rainwater presoaked with brown pine needles through columns of soil. “We’re measuring how that organic carbon is changing as it goes through the columns — what parts are partitioning and sorbing into the soil and which metals they’re grabbing.”
That effort complements Mines hydrology PhD student Lindsay Bearup’s work. In a Berthoud Hall lab, Bearup pulled a one-gallon Ziploc® bag from a refrigerator. Its dirt would find its way into jars, and then vials.
“I have jars and jars of dirt – really exciting!” she joked.
Bearup had collected it from a site north of Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. After hiking the eight miles in, she had filled bags of dirt beneath trees in various states of beetle impact – some green and untouched, some orange, some gray. In the lab, she had put single grams of soil into 50 milliliter falcon tubes and added chemicals to determine how organic fractions differed and what metals were present. This information, combined with water captured in a rain gauge (to determine precipitation volume and stable isotopes) and other data, may help explain the surface water metal mystery, among other things.
“I’m looking at where metals are associated with soils,” she said. “It’s interesting because organic matter is changing as trees die.”
Those changes probably affect the microbial communities in forest soils, added Jonathan Sharp, a Mines assistant professor who focuses on the intersection of microbiology, geology and hydrology. With the pine beetle work, Sharp is guiding graduate students as they work to determine microbial makeup in soil based on DNA analysis. The theory is that, as trees die, microbial ecosystems face a pulse of needles and lifeless root systems and will evolve accordingly. That, in turn, could ultimately affect the transport of metals and water quality.
“We’re trying to look from the millimeter scale all the way up to the watershed,” Sharp said.
Maxwell’s modeling work will incorporate the team’s fieldwork, as well as data from partners at the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Colorado, to bridge these scales. One aim is to put new information in the hands of water managers and policymakers. Part of the project, Maxwell said, will involve partnering with water municipalities in Colorado and southern Nevada to help them understand how pine beetles may be affecting the quality of their inflows and how they might adjust their water treatment regimes.
“We’re seeing real water quality changes,” Maxwell said. “At best, this is going to mean an increase in water bills.”
John McCray, a co-investigator and head of Mines' Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says the project’s combination of field work, chemical and DNA analysis, and computer modeling could help answer questions well beyond those posed by the pine beetle.
“The processes we’re looking at really have to do with any sort of change in mountain and forest hydrology,” McCray said. “Those could be changes due to fire, development or climate change.”
It’s good that the work’s happening now, he added. “Pine beetles appear to have significant effects on hydrology and water quality, and we’ve only had a limited window in which to study this.”
This article appears in the 2013-14 edition of Mines' research magazine, "Energy and the Earth."
By Taylor Polodna
A group of Mines students, representing Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA), travelled down to Nicaragua to the small community of Los Gomez to complete a pedestrian footbridge over the frequently flooded Rio Ochomogo River.
The bridge had been under construction for the preceding year. The cohort included six students, a faculty mentor, and a professional mentor, ranging in majors from civil to humanitarian to chemical engineering, all of whom donated their spring reaks to helping those less fortunate than themselves. The trip marked the 4th trip to the small community over the last year in which the team was able to finish hand mixing and pouring two concrete anchors, stringing five steel cables, and laying the decking and fencing of the 42 meter pedestrian footbridge.
EWB-USA Mines is a student led campus club that focuses on sustainable development of communities outside of the US with six core values: integrity, service, collaboration, ingenuity, leadership, and service. In addition, the club participates at a local level in a variety of on-campus and off-campus events including Relay for Life, Up 'Til Dawn, and many Habitat for Humanity builds.
Barbara Anderson, a graduating senior in Civil Engineering recounts her experience toward the end of the bridge completion. "As we began putting the decking on the bridge we were able to muster a lot of community support and could tell that the community members, even the ones that didn't come to worksite, were getting excited for their bridge to be completed. Kids would walk by on their way home from school and just watch us work on the bridge for hours and, as soon as we left, would play on it. At the end of the week, we had an opening ceremony for the bridge with the whole community. It was an awesome experience to see all the people that had worked with us, fed us, and welcomed us into their homes gather together and celebrate the success of their project."
Read the rest of the story on The Oredigger website.
In an effort to develop energy self-reliance for mining operations, Colorado School of Mines Mining Engineering Professor Masami Nakagawa is leading a feasibility study for solar-wind hybrid power generation for the fourth largest silver mine in the world, Minera San Cristobal in Bolivia.
This project aims to provide sustainable hybrid power generation for the cafeteria and sleeping quarters of the Minera San Cristobal mine camp.
“This study can only supply about 1.5 megawatts of electricity -- a tiny fraction of the total energy needed for the big silver mine. What I am looking for is a ripple effect of this project to other mines to develop larger usage of renewable energy to power energy intense mining operations,” said Nakagawa, noting geothermal energy likely will stabilize complete needs by supplying base-load energy in the future.
Nakagawa, who has expertise in geothermal energy, teamed up with Mines Electrical Engineering Professor Marcelo Simoes and Kyle Bahr, a mining engineering PhD student at Mines, for a visit to the mine camp for site selection in January 2013.
“I see this project as a game-changer and I am grateful the management team of Minera San Cristobal is open-minded about sustainable mining operations and mining community development,” said Nakagawa, who is promoting a new idea in in sustainable development he is calling “Caring Energy” to empower communities.
The Colorado School of Mines student chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA has raised more than $15,000 to fund the construction of a bridge in Nicaragua.
The bridge project, located in the Carazo region, connects a rural community with access to medical facilities, food markets, and adjacent farmland that is cut off during the rainy season. The Mines group has committed to remain involved in this region for five or more years through future bridge or other development projects.
The principal donor of the project, the Alcoa Foundation, is providing a $200,000 grant to various organizations for the Building for Better program that supports engineering faculty and students at Alcoa’s academic partners in Australia, Brazil, Canada and the United States. Other donors supporting the Nicaragua bridge project include CH2MHill, Todd Wang, and Jim and Nelly Kilroy.
The Mines chapter will travel to Nicaragua in January 2013 to begin construction of the bridge. The project will be completed before the start of the next rainy season in March. During these trips, students will investigate other sites in the region in need of bridges and will plan to design and build a bridge for a second location in the next two years.
The growing Engineers Without Borders-USA Colorado School of Mines Student Chapter is a student-led organization of approximately 20 students.
For more information about the project, or to donate to the cause, view their website at inside.mines.edu/ewb.