Student Project Improves International Space Station Water System

LSU Environmental Engineers Win First at WERC Competition

May 7, 2019

Group photo of students in lab coats at WERC competitionBATON ROUGE, LA – Thirty-one LSU Environmental Engineering students traveled to Las Cruces, NM, to compete in the 29th Annual WERC (Waste-management Education Research Consortium) Environmental Design Contest, where they won a total of five awards and two first-place task awards, a first for LSU Engineering.

LSU competed against 20 other teams from 10 universities, including Washington State University; University of Arkansas; University of Idaho; University of New Hampshire; New Mexico State University; University of California, Riverside; Montana Tech; Ohio University; Cal Poly-San Luis Ebispo; and University of Texas at El Paso.

Taking first place in Task 1 (Silver-based Microbial Check Valve for Spacecraft Potable Water Systems) were LSU Environmental Engineering seniors Morgan Lauck of Mandeville, La.; Ian Smith of Baton Rouge; Dylan Bates of Grand Cane, La.; Brian Beck of Horsham, Penn.; Dana Bowman of Baton Rouge; Sheila Elhami of Baton Rouge; Gibson Fischer of Baton Rouge; and Jon Nelson of Greenwell Springs, La. In completing the task, sponsored by NASA, the team designed an electrolysis method using silver to keep bacteria from growing in the recycled water used by the International Space Station.

“All of the water on the space station is recycled,” Smith said. “They collect water and use this complex system of deionizing and cleaning it to make sure it’s drinkable. It’s unsafe to drink iodine, so they must remove it before it goes into the potable water system. Usually in space, you get some microbial growth in the clean water that sits there in the tank. However, we can ingest silver in small amounts, so we’re able to dose the system and make it safe for astronauts to drink.”

“Electrolysis is a really simple method,” said Lauck, who served as team leader. “Our project is a replacement of their iodine system, but an improvement to the overall water recycling and treatment system. The only real addition would be two silver wires.”

Beck explained that these wires are connected to the electrode that doses the untreated water with the silver concentration.

“Right now, the astronauts clean the water, then it turns bad, so they have to clean it again,” Smith said. “Our method isn’t disinfection; it’s a preventative residual dose.”

Unlike iodine, silver is not harmful for humans to ingest in small doses.

“Five hundred parts per billion can be ingested by humans,” Bates said. “Anything over this can cause argyria, which turns skin a bluish gray.”

The students had to complete the task without truly knowing how everything on the ISS is built. One thing the team did know is that their model had to be under 5 kg.

“We don’t know if that’s because that’s the weight they would want to use for the ISS,” Lauck said. “It needed to be lightweight because weight is a huge constriction for the ISS. Our model is really small and simple.”

Smith said they wanted their design to be simple for the astronauts to use.

“We talked about that a lot at WERC,” he said.

What really seemed to impress the WERC judges was the team’s outline of how much the project would cost, which totaled near $1.1 million.

“Our original cost analysis was very underestimated,” Lauck said. “I sat down with Dr. [John] Pardue who explained that it was going to cost a lot more and have a yearlong implementation schedule. He helped a lot with that.”

Under the advisement of LSU CEE Professor and EVEG Undergraduate Program Coordinator John Pardue, the team began researching their project in September 2018, then moved on to building and testing in November.

“I really like the way Dr. Pardue did it because he would help us if we ever went to him with a serious question; but for the most part, he wanted us to do this by ourselves,” Beck said.

Working as such a large team, the students agreed that it was easier to break into smaller groups to focus on specific tasks, which ended up being beneficial in more ways than one.

“It was rare that all eight of us could find the time to work together, so it would be groups of three working at a time, which is probably why we never really fought,” Lauck said. “I think we learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses early on. We’ve all since become friends.”

What happens with their project remains to be seen, but the group can lay claim to being one of the first LSU teams to place—well, first—at WERC since the university began competing. The other was the team that took on Task 2 (Industrial Stack Exhaust Emissions Testing Using Drone Technology).

This team—comprised of LSU EVEG seniors Elliot Felsher of Cheneyville, La.; Mark Fritchie of Baton Rouge; Erol Knaus of Baton Rouge; Teche Melancon of Lafayette, La.; Justin Robert of Gonzales, La.; and Lauren Westphal of Broussard, La.—designed a payload to monitor air concentrations of volatile organic compounds and particulate matter from a drone. The group won the task, sponsored by Intel, by developing an integrated sensor and communication system that could monitor industrial smokestacks, eliminating the need for manual stack test measurements.

Taking second place for Task 6 (Blight to Bioswales: Engineered Nature Parks in New Orleans’ Abandoned Lower Ninth Ward Community) were LSU EVEG seniors Aaron Basso of Ponchatoula, La.; Duyen Lam of Raceland, La.; Chandler Landrum of Baton Rouge; Holly Midkiff of Jackson, La.; Madison Moss of Shriever, La.; and Sarah Wannamaker of Baton Rouge.

Also taking second place for Task 3 (Selenium Water Treatment and Recovery) are LSU EVEG seniors Muneer Al-Mamari of Baton Rouge; Lee Lattimore of Baton Rouge; Daniel Lopez of Gonzales, La.; Shelbi Meynard of Marrero, La.; and Juston West of Baton Rouge.

Lastly, receiving the Freeport-McMoRan Innovation in Sustainability Award for Task 5 (Removal and Reuse of Phosphorous as Fertilizer from CAFO Runoff) are LSU EVEG seniors Jasmine Bekkaye of Baton Rouge; Rachel Ellis of Plaquemine, La.; Nathan Goff of Ocean Springs, Miss.; Olivia Guidry of Baton Rouge; Lauren Imme of Denham Springs, La.; and Ryan Robinson of Baton Rouge.

WERC is a competition that brings together industry, government, and academia in search for improved solutions to environmental challenges. All winnings from the competition will go back into LSU’s EVEG program to help next year’s participants.


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Contact: Libby Haydel

Communications Specialist