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Three Rs for a cleaner world

Lee Blaney '05 has a new take on the three R's, which were known in bygone days as Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic.

Blaney, who just earned a B.S. in environmental engineering, has a vision for three R's that could solve environmental and health problems in the developing and developed worlds.

He is seeking to recover iron from the sludges of water treatment plants and reuse it to reduce the amount of arsenic, a highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical, which is present in the groundwater in various regions around the world.

"This iron is being thrown out everywhere," says Blaney, who works with Arup K. SenGupta, the P.C. Rossin Senior Professor of civil and environmental engineering. "We want to apply the three R's of the environmental adage - reduce, reuse and recycle."

Blaney has presented his project to two distinguished audiences in recent months. In April, he spoke in New York City at the 13th United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. Blaney and Mike Norelli '05, a mechanical engineering major at Lehigh, were invited to give presentations after finishing first and second in the Citizen Science writing contest sponsored by SustainUS, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable development.

In May, Blaney, SenGupta and John Greenleaf, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering at Lehigh, traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's first P3 (People, Prosperity, Planet) science design contest.

The competition was judged by a panel convened by the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Science, the National Research Institute and the Institute of Medicine, all of which advise the federal government.

The EPA announced the contest in 2004 and invited undergraduate and graduate students nationwide to submit applications. Several hundred teams applied. EPA chose 70 teams, including Blaney's, to take part in the competition, and gave each $10,000 toward research and travel expenses.

For his project, Blaney united ideas and technologies that had been developed by SenGupta, Greenleaf and Prakhar Prakash, who received a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Lehigh last year.

Prakash and SenGupta earned a patent for a membrane-separation technique using Donnan Dialysis that removes certain coagulants - alum (aluminum sulfate) and ferric salts - from sludge and enables them to be reused.

SenGupta and Greenleaf have developed a simple, inexpensive, well-head unit that uses tiny, polymeric ion-exchange beads impregnated with ferric (iron) hydroxide to filter arsenic from water wells. The system has been installed in wells in 125 villages in East India, where UN officials say millions of people drink water containing toxic levels of arsenic.

In the poster that he displayed at the EPA competition, Blaney explained that the iron recovered from sludge could be used in the ion-exchange filtration systems that remove arsenic from groundwater.

"In the developed world, the one-time use of coagulant in water-treatment plants is causing millions of tons of coagulant-laden sludge to need disposal each year," Blaney wrote in his poster. "A world away, the populations of West Bengal, India, and Bangladesh are being poisoned by excessive concentrations of arsenic in the natural groundwater system.

"This project seeks to...simultaneously provide a solution to both problems. Attempts to reuse the recovered iron to synthesize a polymer-supported hybrid sorbent (HIX) have proven successful; however, future efforts are required to make this procedure more competitive."

Blaney said the EPA contest resembled a science fair.

"I walked around, looked at other people's projects and got some good ideas. I made a lot of contacts."

Blaney hopes eventually to study for his Ph.D. and teach engineering. He has already compiled on-the-job training in his chosen field as a tutor in Lehigh's STAR (Students That Are Ready) Academies. STAR matches Lehigh students with local students in grades 6-12 who need help with homework and study skills.

Blaney has tutored STAR students in a variety of subjects, including Spanish and chemistry. Being a STAR tutor for the last two years, he says, "has given me a real appreciation for teaching."

photographs by Ursula Pfitzer

Posted on Sunday, June 05, 2005

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