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Team of Student Engineers Wins Honorable Mention at EPA Sustainability Competition

Environmental Protection Agency’s P3 competition in Washington DC.Members of the ODU engineering team (from left) Jose Garcia, Caleb Talbot, Sandeep Kumar, Hannah Drake

An honorable mention in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) sustainability competition has only increased the drive of the team of Old Dominion University student engineers who participated last weekend in Washington, D.C.

Sandeep Kumar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, said the nine-member student team should be justifiably proud of its accomplishment, being selected as one of 17 honorable mentions among top science and engineering university teams in the competition. Teams also receiving honorable mentions included Stanford University, Clemson University and Brigham Young University.

Kumar said being on the National Mall and seeing other teams in the P3 competition was a great experience, especially for the younger students who participated.

"Some students had never been to an expo of any kind. Seeing the projects produced by these top engineering schools was very motivational and inspiring," Kumar said.

The ODU team included team leader Jose Garcia and members Hannah Drake, Caleb Talbot, Sergiy Popov, Jonathan Ricci, Ali Tetmouri, Paul Wilson, Kwamena Mfrase-Ewur and Victor Collins.

Oktay Baysal, dean of the Batten College, said the students should also feel proud because their project was designed with sustainability in mind.

"ODU Engineering promotes education that includes responsible practice of the profession. Respecting our environment and the Earth's precious resources are at the core of this creed," Baysal said.

The ODU students, advised by Kumar, worked all year on a novel algae-processing technique that instantly extracts key nutrients and proteins from algae, leaving the solids, fats and carbohydrates to convert as transportation fuel.

Experiments demonstrated that the nutrients can be recycled into growing more algae or creating fertilizers, and the proteins can be turned into polyurethane foam or food additives. The entire process is significantly more energy efficient over the life cycle of the algae, because so much of the product can be reused.

Throughout the school year, the student team refined the process, with undergraduate and graduate students working side by side to determine which method of growing algae produces the best results after the extraction process.

Kumar said contacts were made at the P3 competition for future research collaborations and possible funding sources. Judges from industry, government and academia chose a handful of teams for $90,000 in seed funding from the EPA to develop commercial applications for their innovations.

"It was a little disappointing that we weren't one of those top teams, but these are some of the top engineering schools in the entire country," like the University of Wisconsin, Purdue University and Cornell University, Kumar said.

"Some of these other teams have been participating in this competition for several years, so they have practice in doing what the judges want to see. Our students hope to enter again next year, and they'll have that experience," Kumar said.

One very happy result did emerge from the competition. An "elevator pitch"- a one-minute video produced by team member Hannah Drake, a master's student in environmental engineering - won second place in the competition. It was judged by a panel of clean-technology venture capitalists who assessed how the team's idea was communicated, particularly regarding its potential value as a business concept.

The National Sustainable Design Expo brings together students, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and businesses that are working to create a sustainable future. It offers a unique opportunity to discover innovative, cutting-edge technologies developed by university students and their faculty advisers, learn what nonprofit organizations and government agencies are doing to achieve sustainability, experience sustainable products that are currently available, and recruit talented hires with backgrounds in the broad range of disciplines found in the sustainability arena.