NMSU environmental research fuels southern New Mexico R&D reputation

The New Mexico State University-based WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development continues to fuel the growing regional reputation for high-tech research and development through the 16th Annual International Environmental Design Contest, April 2-6 this year.

The week-long competition, sponsored by private and public entities such as Intel Corp., U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Energy and the Food and Drug Administration, this year will engage 32 university teams (typically four to 10 students) tackling real-world environmental challenges. The contest includes two international schools and a concurrent high school competition with 22 teams participating.

Two NMSU teams and one from the University of New Mexico will compete with other top institutions on eight tasks (design challenges) for thousands in cash prizes, traveling trophies and worldwide recognition. A career fair for top students in their field is held on NMSU campus as the contest winds down.

Government agencies, industrial affiliates and academic partners play a key role in the design contest, assisting WERC in the development of design problem statements and evaluation criteria, providing financial support for site-specific issues and serving as judges for the final competition. Design teams showcase their work through research papers, oral and poster presentations and bench-scale demonstrations. Their scientific approach must consider regulatory guidelines, public opinion and cost, core components of the environmental regulatory process.

“A critical challenge for the design teams is building cost-effective bench-scale models while maintaining a high degree of scientific integrity,” said Steven Moates, a WERC technician responsible for bench-scale development.

This year’s tasks include several challenges focusing on water quality, food facility contamination and toxic waste removal from liquid waste collection systems, used in concentrated streams in semiconductor industries. Water quality tasks include Arsenic Treatment for Water in Rural, Isolated Communities, particularly critical in New Mexico. The proposed solution would remove arsenic, a known toxin and carcinogen, in the presence of other contaminants and ions such as silica and iron from water for human consumption. Seven teams are designing on this task, including a group from Budapest Technical University in Hungary.

One of the design challenges, to develop and demonstrate a simple and practical clean-up method for a food facility contaminated with a microbiological agent, mandates the solution be cost-effective and consider all aspects of clean-up, including waste disposal.

“Not only does this research benefit the nation with fresh and innovative solutions to some of our most pressing environmental problems, but students gain a unique educational opportunity through the experience of designing and developing technologies to real problems,” said Abbas Ghassemi, WERC executive director. “Over the years we’ve seen many amazing solutions developed by the students, some of which have actually been implemented in the industrial/commercial arena.”

WERC’s mission is to set up an infrastructure and a program to effectively expand the world’s capability to address issues associated with waste management. One of the consortium’s biggest champions is U.S. Sen.
Pete Domenici, R-NM.

“This contest and the whole concept of WERC reflect the need to find new, affordable ways of addressing the management of nuclear, hazardous & solid waste.” Domenici said. “When WERC was created, I couldn’t have predicted nearly 2,000 former WERC students would now have completed their degrees with more than 12,000 professionals having gone through WERC training programs.”

The WERC consortium consists of NMSU (administrative location), the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Tech, Diné College and Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. For more information about WERC, visit www.werc.net or call (505) 646-2038.

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