Lacyn Touchard, an environmental engineering student from Louisiana State University along with her team, practices what they will be saying to judges as they present their system for direct potable water reuse at the 28th annual WERC Environmental Design Contest at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, Tuesday April 10, 2018.
Josh Bachman/Sun-News

LAS CRUCES — Wearing white lab coats and safety glasses, an all-female team of New Mexico State University students explained Tuesday their solution to a problem facing the International Space Station: how to remove certain contaminants from the vessel's drinking-water supply.

The team of engineers, which dubbed itself "The Girls," took on the challenge late last year as part of a yearly design contest this week in Las Cruces. The 28th annual WERC Environmental Design Contest, held at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum, attracts university students from across the country.

Students must use their years of engineering study to solve a real-world problem facing industry or government — mainly how to clean up, prevent or measure various kinds of contamination.

A real-world challenge

Members of the NMSU team — Zusset Nieto, Adilen Martinez, Kayla Sparks and Chathurika Bandara — said before they could even begin design work on a possible solution, they had to carry out a lot of in-depth research. And once they settled on a plan, there were plenty of problems to work out along the way. But they said it was a chance to put their book-learned knowledge to the test.

"You don't learn anything like this on paper," said Martinez, a senior at NMSU.

The NMSU team started last year by selecting one of the half-dozen 2018 contest challenges, known as a "task," to solve. It entailed figuring out how to reduce ethanol and methanol levels in the space station's drinking water, which they said is an actual challenge facing the real space station. Nieto said that drinking water with those chemicals for a prolonged time can cause headaches, vomiting and liver damage, among other issues.

"Methanol and ethanol, if ingested, they can have health effects," she said.

Projects demonstrated

The team was one of five from New Mexico State University alone. In all, 25 teams — comprising more than 200 students — from universities across the nation participated in contest.

Tuesday, students demonstrated scaled-down models of their projects to judges. They also were required to create a research poster and give a presentation. 

The judges consist of engineers and experts from academics, industry and government who will evaluate each project and how effectively it solves the assigned problem. Several students said a goal was not only to address the given task but to do it at the lowest cost possible.

"They're trying to solve a real problem that can be taken to the real world to be implemented," said Mona Elshinawy, NMSU research engineer and director of the contest.

With the all the work that goes into designing a project and taking part in the different aspects of the contest, it winds up being a rigorous event. Elshinawy said there will be four first-place awards among the more-than-two-dozen teams.

"We don't only depend on students doing a written report," she said. "They're doing the whole experiment in front of us."

Graham Chapman,right, Xiao Cheng, center, Joel S. Valdez,left, and Luis Garcia,center left, all New Mexico State Univeristy Students work to get their demonstration of a system they designed to remove Carbamazepine from a watershed, to judges at the 28th Annual WERC Enviromental Design Contest. Tuesday, April 10, 2018 at the Farm and Ranch Museum. The design contest brought together 25 teams from 12 different universities and is hosted by the New Mexico State University College of Engineering.
Josh Bachman/Sun-News

Cleaning mine water

Tyler Shock, a senior chemical engineering student at the University of Arkansas, was one of six people on a team tasked with removing contaminants from leftover water from a mining operation in Arizona.

"It needs to meet drinking water standards, as well as other potable drinking water standards," he said. "We're removing the contaminants, calcium sulphate, from that water."

Shock and his team drove about 16 hours from Fayettville, Arkansas to participate in the contest, which launched Sunday and will wind down Wednesday with an awards ceremony.

Derek Richard, another member of the team, said the group has been intensely working on the project since October. And the team achieved its goal, meeting the EPA standards for the contaminated water.

"It's like having a full-time job for four months and then classes," he said.

Sensing air pollution

A five-person team from the University of Connecticut created a wearable sensor and companion smart phone app to monitor air pollution levels, something that could be useful to a person with lung problems. While the federal government collects air quality data from locations throughout the country, there are large gaps in between the sensors, noted Don O'Boyle, a senior electrical engineering student. That mobility is an asset, he said.

"Because it doesn't require an Internet connection, it can go anywhere," he said of the sensor, which is worn like an armband.

The team was optimistic about its project.

"As it stands here, I think it performed really well, and we have something we can be proud of," O'Boyle said.

Drinking wastewater

Another team from the University of Arkansas explained how their project focused on treating wastewater to the point of being drinkable. It's an application that could be especially useful to cities in the desert Southwest, for which water supply is a key concern, they said.

Two members of the team drove to Silver City before the contest to collect actual effluent water from that city's wastewater plant.

"We were able to create potable water from their wastewater effluent," said team member Boyce Bethel, a senior engineering student. "For towns that face the need, this could absolutely be implemented."

Sabrina Castle, another member of the team, said the project uses a five-step process to treat and disinfect the water.

The team, including Molly Churchwell, Lauren Clark, Dakota Rusk and Aaron Henry, said their project also served as a "capstone" project and a thesis for their senior year.

The contest awards ceremony is slated for Wednesday.

Follow Diana Alba Soular on Twitter @AlbaSoular.

New Mexico State University Students Alfredo Zendejas, right, along with his teammates Lei Hu and Lin Chen, explain the system they built that would allow Oil and Gas Companies to filter and re use the water they would normally just pump into the ground, to judges Waleed Sunna and Warren Neff at the 28th Annual WERC Environmental Design Contest. Tuesday, April 10, 2018 at the Farm and Ranch Museum. The design contest brought together 25 teams from 12 different universities and is hosted by the New Mexico State University College of Engineering.
Josh Bachman/Sun-News