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Working on solutions to real-world problems is a hallmark of a Clarkson education.Now, five members of the Clarkson University Remediation Engineers (CURE) team have tackled the problem of perchlorate contamination of drinking water in the U.S. and have developed a cost-effective treatment technology to remove the perchlorate in small water delivery systems and domestic water systems.

 The CURE team worked on the project as part of a national contest that challenges student teams to find solutions to environmental problems. The Clarkson team will present and demonstrate their removal system in the 14th Annual Environmental Design Contest held April 4-8 on the campus of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M. The contest is sponsored by the Waste-Management Education and Research Consortium.

 Participating students include seniors Michelle Burt (Rutland, Vt.), Michael Cooper (Ontario, N.Y.), Kevin Kenyon (Nedrow, N.Y.), and Deanna St. Onge (Greene, Maine); and junior Kevin Hickey (Clifton Park, N.Y.).

 “Perchlorate, a soluble anion, has been detected in the drinking water of 14 states, primarily in the southwest,” says Thomas Holsen, professor of civil and environmental engineering and team co-advisor. “Perchlorate gets into drinking water by the dissolution of the solid salts of ammonium, potassium and sodium perchlorate used in the manufacturing of solid propellant for rockets, missiles, and fireworks. Though research on the health effects of consuming water containing perchlorate continues, ingestion of perchlorate has been shown to cause adverse health effects by interfering with the function of the thyroid gland.”Working with Holsen and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Andrea Ferro, the students investigated eight alternative treatment technologies to remove the perchlorate. The criteria considered in each were effectiveness, cost, treatment time, by-products, ease of use, and maintenance requirements. After careful consideration, the students chose a point-of-use (POU) water treatment system with reverse osmosis (RO) and a granulated activated carbon (GAC) filter. The device will treat only water intended for consumption.

Based on laboratory testing, the RO/GAC system achieves a removal efficiency of approximately 99 percent. The testing included collecting samples for varying influent water flow rates and perchlorate concentrations. In these experiments well water containing perchlorate was pumped through a full-scale model and samples were taken from the permeate and reject streams. The RO membrane by itself was able to remove approximately 96 percent of perchlorate. When GAC was added after the RO membrane, the removal of perchlorate in the samples increased to approximately 99 percent. 

The water treatment design involves a complete cost analysis. The cost per 1,000 gallons of water entering the house was determined to be $1.66 for the RO/GAC system, compared with $7.40 for providing bottled water. Discharge of the contaminated water through the septic system proved to be efficient, safe and cost effective. Concentrations of perchlorate in the effluent for the home increase less than two percent, and microorganisms within the septic system break down the perchlorate into harmless by-products. 

“The students have found a cost effective solution for perchlorate removal from water,” Holsen adds. “They have done a wonderful job of tackling the problem and thinking through a workable solution that addresses scientific, health, safety and community acceptance issues.”

To compete in the contest, student teams must prepare and submit written design reports, make oral presentations and develop bench-scale models of their solutions that are judged by a panel of experts from government, industry and academia.

This is the 12th consecutive year the Clarkson CURE team will participate in the international contest. In previous competitions, the team has consistently received top honors and numerous first-place prizes for innovation and efficient designs. This year, Clarkson is one of 31 teams from the U.S., Canada and Mexico that will compete in the contest that includes cash awards exceeding $25,000.

CURE is one of the University's SPEED (Student Projects for Engineering Experience and Design) programs, which promotes multidisciplinary, project-based learning opportunities. SPEED projects involve more than 250 undergraduates annually in engineering design and analysis, fabrication and the enhancement of professional competencies such as budget management, effective teamwork, and communication skills. The SPEED program is one of the Wallace H. Coulter School of Engineering hallmark initiatives promoting the “Vision of a Clarkson Education” through experiential learning by hands-on application of academic theory to real-world problems.

SPEED receives its primary financial support from Alcoa, Corning, Eastman Kodak, the General Electric Fund, and Procter & Gamble. SPEED was recognized with the 2001 Boeing Outstanding Educator Award and the 2002 Corporate and Foundation Alliance Award for its exceptional contributions to improving undergraduate engineering education.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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