November 02, 2011

Student team wins award from U.S. EPA

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A team of engineering and science students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has won an award from the U.S. government for its members’ efforts in finding better, more sustainable ways to promote quality of life for humans while protecting the environment.

The students, led by Manoj Mohanty, professor of mining and mineral resources engineering in the College of Engineering, won a “P3” award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  P3 stands for people, prosperity and planet, all of which the agency strives to protect and promote by offering the award and contest.

The team’s entry proposal was titled “Sustainable Utilization of Coal Combustion Byproducts through the Production of High Grade Minerals and Cement-less Green Concrete,” Mohanty said.  Its goals are finding ways to extract valuable minerals from coal ash and manufacturing concrete using coal byproducts.

For the past eight years, the U.S. EPA has solicited applications for its P3 program.  The proposals are aimed at conducting research and developing and designing solutions for real life issues involving sustainability.

“The P3 Awards program was developed to foster progress toward sustainability by achieving the mutual goals of economic prosperity, protection of the planet and improved quality of life for its people -- people, prosperity, and the planet -- the three pillars of sustainability,” Mohanty said.  “The EPA offers the P3 competition in order to respond to the technical needs of the world while moving towards the goal of sustainability.”

“This was the eighth year U.S. EPA held this competition and to the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that a team from SIUC has won this award,” Mohanty said.

The agency gave out about 45 awards this year for projects, including about 40 for so-called “Phase I’ projects, which can only last one year.  Such awards can total up to $15,000.

The agency also granted a handful of “Phase II” awards, which, upon successful completion of the project’s Phase I, can provide up to $90,000 for a second year. 

Mohanty, who advised the team of students along with Sanjeev Kumar, professor and distinguished teacher in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said the students’ project is aimed at mitigating the environmental issues associated with using coal for energy, which is not going to change any time soon.

“It is true that coal-based energy production is associated with negative environmental impacts unlike the renewable energy production processes,” Mohanty said.  “However, you have to realize that the USA and really the entire world continues to generate nearly 50 percent of its electricity from coal, because of the abundance of this natural resource.

With this in mind, researchers around the world are striving to invent new ways to lower the cost of renewable energy production processes so that it can be affordable for common people. Such technology, however, remains a long way off, Mohanty said.

“It may be a few decades away yet before the most promising renewable energy production processes become affordable and also available,” he said. “Therefore, coal researchers continue to look for new ways to lower the environmental footprints and efficiency of coal-based energy generation processes.”

One of the biggest issues is disposing or mitigating the leftover ash when coal is burned. The SIU Carbondale team is focusing on this byproduct and the potential it has to provide valuable materials for the concrete manufacturing process.

The team, which includes several doctoral students from the colleges of engineering and science, is trying to develop low-cost processes to extract from the ash various valuable minerals, such as iron oxides and titanium oxides. 

“The other important goal is developing a suitable procedure for preparing geopolymer-based concrete from (coal byproducts) without the use of cement; this will significantly reduce the carbon footprint of concrete production,” Mohanty said.

The grant is providing almost $15,000 for the Phase I study, which will conclude next August.  The Southern Illinois Power Co-Op (SIPC), a local coal utility company, also is providing support for the project, Mohanty said.

Students on the team include doctoral students Hamid Akbari and Baojie Zhang, both from the Department of Mining and Mineral Resources Engineering, who helped lead the group.  Other students were Sang Shin, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering; Mohammad Rahman, a doctoral student in geology; and Emilia Zargham, a former SIUC student and currently a doctoral student at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“The student leaders are among the best of the best,” Mohanty said.

The team will participate and present the results of this study at the National Sustainable Design Expo next spring in Washington, Mohanty said. It also will work closely with coal power plants in Southern Illinois area as its members conduct research that promotes the concepts of high-value utilization of coal combustion residues.