Environmental Protection Agency awards grant to UC Berkeley graduate students

Dana Hernandez/Courtesy

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A group of campus graduate students in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering received a $25,000 federal grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop technology that removes arsenic from California drinking water.

The project, “Solving the Arsenic Problem in Rural California,” is researching how to efficiently remove arsenic from water. The group is one of 18 teams that received a total of $447,000 in grant funding from the EPA through its research program, the People, Prosperity and the Planet, or P3, Student Design Competition Program.

“The project is to develop low-cost, high-performance technology that does not require sophisticated operator skills,” said supervising professor Ashok Gadgil. “We have a technology that seems to be really low-cost and highly effective, so what we have proposed to the EPA is to get some support to test it out.”

Arsenic is one of the “most serious” naturally occurring chemical contaminants in drinking water around the world, affecting about 200 million people, according to Gadgil. Research group member Winston Tseng added that arsenic has no taste or odor, is invisible and can cause cancer in people who drink it.

Gadgil noted that India has already built successful water treatment technology over the past 40 years with Electrochemical Arsenic Remediation, or ECAR. According to Gadgil, however, developing this technology in the United States at a low cost is difficult because of high labor costs.

“The first large scale ECAR plant currently provides arsenic-safe drinking water to a rural school,” said research group member Dana Hernandez in an email. “Water is being sold at less than a penny per liter to the surrounding community, making the plant financially self-sufficient.”

The group has demonstrated that the Air Cathode Assisted Iron Electrocoagulation, the technology that filters out the arsenic, can reduce concentrations of arsenic as high as 500 micrograms per liter of water to below the allowable limit set by the EPA of 10 micrograms per liter of water, according to Hernandez. The research group has also been conducting small-scale studies with a Central Valley community and school district that might eventually be applicable to larger populations.

Phase one of the P3 program involves showcasing their research at the EPA’s National Student Design Expo in the spring, according to the EPA website. After phase one is complete, the group can apply to phase two, where it could be awarded up to $100,000 to further develop its project, according to EPA spokesperson Melissa Sullivan.

“I feel thrilled and am very motivated to continue this research,” Hernandez said in an email. “Not just the technology development aspect, but having the opportunity to work with different groups at UC Berkeley and in the Central Valley of California.”

Contact Tate Coan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tatecoan.