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Purifying Pollution

Emad Sanei, a Ph.D. student in the Earth and Ecosystem Science program, uses his passion for environmental engineering to develop a cost-efficient method for reducing wastewater pollution. As populations grow, so does the demand for wastewater treatment plants. However, even with modern-day technology, some pollutants can persist in the water after filtration and threaten human health and the ecosystem. To prevent this, Sanei and his supervisor Dr. Itzel Marquez research cost-efficient methods for breaking down stubborn pollutants that can be used by treatment facilities.  

When wastewater is sent to treatment plants, it is filtered, and recycled back into clean water that can be used for a variety of purposes, such as human consumption or irrigating crops. However, some pollutants persist after filtration and can harm humans and the environment. Sanei focused his research on Trace Organic Compounds (TOrCs), which are compounds found in cleaning products, drugs, detergents, and other products.  

Luckily, there is a natural phenomenon that can help to degrade, or break down, these harmful TOrCs: sunlight. Through a process called photodegradation, sunlight enters a body of water, is absorbed by molecules in that environment, allowing oxygen in the water to degrade the TOrCs. While some wastewater treatment plants use natural sunlight to activate photodegradation, others, such as the one in Mt. Pleasant, rely on UV lights to help break down stubborn pollutants. Though these UV lights are an effective approach to disinfecting the water and attacking TOrCs, they can be energy-consuming and expensive.  

As a result, Sanei and Dr. Marquez work to develop a method for removing TOrCs that can save wastewater treatment plants energy and money. The research team begins by closely investigating the degradation process. They do so by putting contaminated wastewater samples (collected from various treatment plants) under a sunlight simulator to activate photodegradation. By experimenting with different wastewater samples, Sanei and Dr. Marquez are able to see how fast the degradation process occurs. Once enough data is collected, they will then model this process using software coding to try and predict the degradation timeline of TOrCs.   

If successful in predicting how much sunlight and time is needed to degrade stubborn pollutants, this software will save treatment plants time, energy, and money. Though still in progress, Sanei and Dr. Marquez are hopeful that their research can be further expanded upon and lead to replacing traditional treatment methods. 

At CMU We Do Research, We Do Real World

Story by ORGS intern Hailey Nelson

December 2021