Civil and Environmental Engineers Test Skill in Annual Design Contests

May 1, 2006

Two groups of civil and environmental engineering (CEE) students competed in design contests in April. One group tested a system they designed to remove arsenic from drinking water at a contest in Las Cruces, N. M. on April 2-6. The event is organized each year by an environmental education and technology development consortium called WERC. A second group competed in a variety of events — including a steel bridge building contest and a concrete canoe race--at the annual American Society of Civil Engineers Carolinas Conference in Charleston, S.C., on April 6-9.

This year marked the second that Duke has participated in the WERC competition, said assistant chair of CEE David Schaad, who acted as faculty adviser for the team. The Pratt School has a longer history of participation in the Carolinas Conference, an effort led this year by associate professor of the practice Joseph Nadeau.

The WERC participants chose the arsenic removal task from a list of eight possible design challenges identified by the consortium. The arsenic task required them to “develop and demonstrate a cost-effective, energy efficient treatment technology to remove arsenic” from water containing other contaminants and ions, such as silica and iron.

“Water treatment is a big problem here and around the world,” said first year CEE graduate student Amrika Deonarine from Trinidad and Tobago.

Indeed, naturally occurring arsenic occurs in New Mexico water supplies at levels exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recently adopted drinking water standards, according to the WERC website.

It was the problem’s real-world significance that led the students to select it from the many options, they said. Last year’s team also took on the same design challenge, which provided the students with a foundation of knowledge and experience on which to build their design.

Their final design relied on the precipitation and filtration of arsenic using simple filters containing a mixture of granulated activated carbon and bottom ash, coated with the iron-containing compound ferric hydroxide. Bottom ash is a byproduct of coal combustion.

“It is known that arsenic will adhere to iron, therefore the iron which has attached to the carbon will attract the arsenic in the water,” the students wrote in their written report detailing their design and others that they considered. The report also contained an economic analysis and discussion of community and legal issues.

The team built a bench-scale model of the purification system and tested its utility for removing arsenic from a gallon of contaminated water. They presented their findings to a panel of judges.

“We wanted to build on Duke’s legacy with arsenic removal,” said junior Ben Schaefer Abram, a double major in CEE and public policy from Chapel Hill, N.C. “We modified and improved on last year’s design.

“It’s given us a chance to get our hands dirty. Most of us are underclassmen, so we gave it our first shot.” The team plans to be back next year, although they are likely to face a new task.

At the Carolinas Conference, many students who participated in last year’s contest were back for another round.

One of the highlights of the conference was the concrete canoe race, after last year’s boat broke in transit to the competition.

“The overall goal of the competition is to build a boat out of concrete that is nonetheless lighter than water,” said senior Will Senner from Williamsburg, Va. The challenge therefore requires a careful balance of lightness and strength.

The team competed in a series of races, including men’s and women’s sprint and endurance races and a coed sprint. The women’s team came in 3rd place in both of their races. According to Senner’s calculations, the team placed 4th overall.

The men and coed teams were at a disadvantage because of the greater weight in the boat, Senner said. As the boat leaned through the turns, it gradually filled with water and started to sink.

“It was designed for two people, when it really should have been designed for four,” Senner said. “But it was the first time we built a boat that was able to officially compete in a few years. We also had no deductions on the final product,” meaning that they successfully followed all the rules and completed all the required documentation.

Senner predicts next year’s team will do an even better job with a few tweaks to improve the boat’s stability and perhaps increase its height.

The team also competed for the first time in several years in the steel bridge competition in which they designed and fabricated a bridge built of three-foot sections. At the conference, a team of five had to race to assemble the bridge without falling in the “water”-- which actually was painted slashes on the floor.

The team placed 5th in the steel bridge competition. They also won 2nd place in the Quiz Bowl and 3rd in T-shirt design. Their design followed the evolution of an engineer, from a kid building a castle in the sand to a professional engineer.

Others on the WERC team included senior Seth Sokol from Athens, Ga.; sophomore Lee Pearson from Spokane, Wash.; sophomore Bibek Joshi from Nepal; and freshman Samantha Beardsley from Columbia, S.C. The ASCE Carolinas Conference team included senior Jim Garnevicus from Bronx, N.Y; senior Star Davis from Akron, N.Y.; junior Nicole Axelrod from Coral Springs, Fla.; junior Claudia Fischmann from Allentown, Pa.; junior Raki Lavon from Great Neck, N.Y.; senior Lisa Duty from Richmond, Va.; senior Christine Armstrong from Norfolk, Va.; senior Serdar Selamet from Istanbul, Turkey; senior Siu-Chung Yau from Hong Kong; senior Nick DeVincentis from Binghamton, N.Y.; junior Shefalli Singh from Dededo, Guam; and junior Tom Vogt from Arapahoe, N.C.