Archive for November, 2017

Cleaning the Crim Dell

-By Joshua Panganiban

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Ever been to a lake, especially man-made ones, and weren’t able to see your feet? Or even worse you could barely see inches down the brackish surface. Do you remember how you felt? There’s a certain uncomfortability associated with cloudy and dirty water, which makes areas like the Bahamas or Iceland with crystal-clear water extremely appealing. In the past, clean water was seen as a luxury, but in this technological and progressive day and age it’s the aesthetic norm in the developed world. Thus, the demand for materials that would cleanse water of its impurities is high.

Over the summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to assist Professor Randy Chambers in his research with denitrifying bio-polymers. Coming from Virginia Beach I had a vested interest in cleaning brackish and freshwater ecosystems since the city was basically built on a marsh. These bioplastics, commonly referred to as PHA, have the purpose of converting dissolved nitrates in the water to nitrogen gas by providing a conducive environment for denitrifying bacteria to grow. The reduction of nitrates are important since it prevents algae blooms which accounts for most of the dead waste floating in water. He told me there would be many different blends of bioplastics that needed testing. The end goal was to recognize which plastic was the most efficient as denitrification and commercially feasible. The good professor referred to the matting as a “billion dollar idea.”

I was ecstatic. Not only would I be able to help with research, but I could potentially be part of an important marketable sustainable technology. I really look up to people like Elon Musk who was able to capitalize and popularize sustainable tech.

I applied to the Committee on Sustainability’s Green Fee with the pitch that denitrification PHA could possibly clean the Crim Dell and restore it’s beauty. Thankfully, they graciously funded me. Fast-forward to late-May on the door steps of the Keck Lab. My research was about to begin.

I knew that I had to learn the proper techniques for testing the biopolymers in the lab. While Professor Chambers and I were waiting on the more bioplastic blends that were supposed to come in through the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) we ran some lab tests. During the lab incubation, I tested three different types of polymers and a control with the independent variable being the mix of the polymer.  The results of multiple trials favored the more pure form of PHA in the lab setting. Though the data was not consistent, more often than not denitrification was occurring at a faster rate in the samples with biopolymers than the controls.

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Professor Chambers decided that it would be best to play it by year since the PHA testing would be weather dependent and we were unsure when the additional bioplastics would arrive.To begin, we set up a testing area of silt walls to divide up the stream and bricks to slow down the water in the stormwater outlet in the Crim Dell. We referred to this area as “the floams.” Using stormwater management knowledge from a previous internship I set up sandbags along areas of high run-off and bricks to reduce the destruction of the floams during rain storms. Once the bioplastics arrived, I was tasked with making waffles out of these plastics and zip tying them together to form a mat. Yes, I put bioplastic in actual waffles irons (the ones used to cook food) and became a waffles-chef for a couple days. The VIMS faculty in charge of the project joked that I was the best bio-plastic waffle maker in the world since no else has ever made waffles out of the specific bioplastics we were using.

Over the course of four weeks, we ran from two to three tests each week. The results were very inconsistent. On some tests, I would see denitrification occurring. Other times, there would be an increase in nitrate levels. I was frustrated. I thought I was contaminating my samples when I brought them back to the lab, but Professor Chambers tested the samples himself and found similar results.

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There were a lot of factors as well that we thought could account for the inconsistency of the change in nitrate levels, but there wasn’t enough time to test any of them. After thirteen tests, we called the research inconclusive due to the inability for denitrification to be replicated on a consistent basis.

Even though little progress was made on the research itself I’m excited for more sustainable technology like the PHA matting to make its way into the future. Since PHA is a bioplastic with biodegradable properties it could potentially replace a lot of plastics in short-term materials such as erosion control matting or silt wall. This technology has the potential to reduce the amount of microplastic in our oceans while cleaning up water in our ditches. Hopefully, I will revisit the data I collected and re-test the biopolymer in the near future. In the meantime, I am still assisting Professor Chambers during the week in running tests on the new prototypes and mixes of plastics that VIMS continues to send him.

 

November 14th, 2017


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