By Brian Grady |
Engineering students at Ohio University are trying to find a more efficient and commercially practical way to prevent foreign ships from littering the Great Lakes’ water with invasive species.
Tanks crawling with small snails and water fleas are set up in labs in the basement of Stocker Hall on OU’s campus, awaiting student experimentation. By April, the student team will have research findings and a short business plan to present to judges at the New Mexico State University Environmental Design Contest 2012. They are one of 23 teams competing in the national contest.
“[The contest organizers] are offering educational opportunity, and applying it to something that might right now benefit people,” said Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at OU Daniel Gulino. Gulino explained corporations and government agencies such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense contribute money and expertise to the competition, acting as sponsors and judges.
“Most of the tasks are proposed by the sponsors, because the sponsors have that issue,” he said.
There is a list of tasks and challenges to choose from. This year, however, students were given the option to choose an Open Task that aligns with their own interests.
Having grown up just south of Toledo, senior Chemical Engineering major and team leader Alisa Bishop was immediately drawn to the Great Lakes.
“My science fair project my freshman year of high school was about the technologies used to clean the water,” said Bishop. According to her, the current technologies are not effective enough.
Bishop explained that the invasive species problem originates with ballast tanks. Ballast tanks provide balance to ships with low cargo, and collect and release water, depending on the ship’s load.
The ballast tanks on ships inadvertently transport invasive species, moving freshwater species from across the world into the Great Lakes. Because these invasive species threaten the Great Lakes’ natural environment, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued regulations.
“The government has in place that you have to, in the middle of the ocean, swap out your water, so you put the fresh water into your salt water and put the salt water into your ballast tank,” said Bishop. This works pretty effectively, but it doesn’t kill everything, and there’s not really anyone checking that they’re doing this, so you can get around it pretty easily.”
Bishop’s goal is to create a technology that’s cost effective to retrofit to the ship, so that ships will meet environmental shipping standards and be ready in case of an EPA crackdown. The student team is also working with faculty in the Voinovich School to develop a strong market analysis and plan.
“In engineering school you are taught to do all these equations and different math problems to find the most effective way of doing something and it’s not really until your senior year that you’re taking economics into consideration.”
The grand prize for winners is $2500, and is channeled back to the university to help fund the following year’s research, and the trip to New Mexico.