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Education

USF scientists see opportunity gushing from water treatment

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 28, 2013 at 07:48 AM
TAMPA -

When a beach, food product or water source is contaminated, it can take days to discover and resolve the issue. A device developed at the University of South Florida can cut that time to hours.

Wastewater typically is sanitized and discharged. Researchers at USF are trying to harvest the ammonia and phosphate and perhaps even produce energy from what we flush away.

A top water official visited USF on Wednesday to see those high-profile research projects and unveil a federal blueprint to promote technology innovation in solving water resource issues.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is encourage the development of technologies that solve real-world problems, and that’s what they’re doing here at the University of South Florida,” said Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “There are some really good things happening in the lab, and it’s time to move it out and start using these technologies.”

Stoner, accompanied by Jeffery Eger, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based industry group Water Environment Federation, and other water officials got an update on engineering professor Daniel Yeh’s work extracting nutrients, energy and water from human waste.

“We can view (wastewater) as a problem or as an opportunity,” Yeh said. “With 7 billion people on this planet, we have to view it as an opportunity.”

Yeh also is cultivating biofuel-producing microalgae from wastewater with a focus on Tampa’s plant. “We have to redefine the mission of wastewater treatment plants,” he said.

In a nearby lab, the water officials watched a demonstration of the Portable Multi-Use Automated Concentration System, which can detect low levels of microbial pathogens such as E. coli in water sources that directly affect people.

One application, said microbiology professor Daniel Lim, would be to test water used to rinse produce such as lettuce or spinach. Any contamination quickly could be discovered in the rinse water and the potentially dangerous product withheld from public consumption.

The device, being developed with a private partner, Tampa-based IntelliSense Design Inc., also can monitor drinking water supplies or the health of rivers, streams and other water bodies.

Unhealthy levels of bacteria at beaches could be quickly detected and closures implemented, and, importantly, quickly lifted as the problem is remedied, Lim said. The Portable Multi-Use Automated Concentration System “concentrates the bacteria that we’re looking for and detects them in hours rather than days,” he said.

“In Florida, in the Tampa Bay area, that could potentially mean not closing beaches for days but maybe for only a few hours. It has important connotations economically for businesses that would be impacted by a beach closing and also for the general economy.”

After the USF tour, Stoner released a “Blueprint for Integrating Technology Innovation Into the National Water Program.” The document outlines the EPA’s focus on innovative technology-based water initiatives and advancing development of infrastructure, treatment, monitoring and energy production.

Lim said the USF researchers appreciated the chance to host Stoner and the other water officials. “It lets her know that the University of South Florida is not only a top-ranked university, but we have great research projects that can benefit the EPA and other agencies,” he said. “It helps them realize what we have here and where the needs are in terms of research money.”


jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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